Today’s top headline out of West Africa is the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo after his underground compound was reportedly stormed by Ivorian and international forces. After months of war, millions of people displaced, and thousands dead, President-elect Alassane Ouattara has serious challenges ahead as he begins to lead the Ivory Coast.
But how did we get to this point?
Last November the citizens of Ivory Coast went to the polls to elect a new government. The ballots were counted and the victor confirmed by the UN and international observers. Yet, Laurent Gbagbo and his cronies literally ripped the ballot tally from the hands of President-elect Alassane Ouattara and proclaimed the results fraudulent.
Thus began five months of deadlock – with ex-President Gbagbo using his military and government machinery to take power and threaten his enemies. Ouattara was forced to take cover with the United Nations troops and civil servants at the UN’s local headquarters – just down the hill from the Presidential palace in Abidjan. Months of discussions, diplomatic maneuvers, and the imposition of sanctions by the UN Security Council, the US and other governments were unable to convince Gbagbo to step down.
Instead, Gbagbo chose to fight. His belligerence and his willingness to use the army and his informal militias against his political enemies -- and anyone believed to support Ouattara -- caused widespread displacement, the flight of 100,000 refugees and likely thousands of deaths. Ouattara’s supporters, tired of the impasse, also took up arms and threatened Gbagbo’s supporters. They headed for the Capitol Yamoussoukro, which fell without a fight, and then headed for Abidjan. But tensions between tribal or ethnic groups supporting either candidate flared anew, compounded by conflicting claims to prosperous agricultural lands. Some 800 people were reportedly killed last week in northwestern Duekoue alone. An estimated one million people are now internally displaced due to fear and insecurity and are in serious need of international humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, neighboring Liberia – which is itself struggling to rebuild its economic, social and political life -- has had to provide temporary refuge to 100,000 Ivorians. Most are living with host families close to the border. Liberia’s government repeatedly has requested international aid, since most host families had limited resources which were quickly depleted. UN humanitarian agencies and NGO efforts have been hampered by the dispersal of the refugees largely into areas with poor roads, as well as by a lack of funding. Most of the international community’s attention seems to have been focused on Libya.
The African Union’s condemnations, diplomatic endeavors and the threat of intervention fizzled. Sanctions by the UN, US and other governments; Security Council resolutions; the deployment of an additional 2,000 UN peacekeepers; and the closing of international bank accounts failed to convince Gbagbo to go. Finally, last week, French and UN forces were authorized to return fire against Gbagbo’s attacks.
Yesterday, the Abidjan Presidential palace was surrounded by the pro-Outtara Forces Republicaine de Cote d’Ivoire. A combination of French forces under a UN mandate and these forces attacked the compound overnight. But now that Gbagbo has been captured, no one is sure what will come next. Can President Ouattara control his friends and forces and bring about a unity government promoting reconciliation and rebirth of a united Ivorian population? Or will revenge and terror take over? Will the refugees and displaced be welcomed home and aided by the international community to restart their lives? Will the army, militias and supporters of both sides accept the need for a unity government that can work together to heal the wounds of war, and to build a multi-ethnic society where Ivorian citizenship is decided by law and not by ethnicity or accent?
Let us hope that this time -- with their economy hobbled, their banking system in shambles, cocoa trade suspended, and the capitol short of food and electricity -- the bloodshed will stop and all Ivorians will have a chance to use their energies to rebuild their lives and country in peace.
April 12, 2011
| Tagged as: Africa, Cote d'Ivoire, Humanitarian Response