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December 27, 2010

Mediators Finding No Progress in Ivory Coast Dispute

by Nico Colombant

While the international community is pushing in many directions to have incumbent Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo step down, they are finding no success one month after a disputed election. Analysts now say the much anticipated and costly election may not have been the solution to the Ivorian problem the international community was hoping for.

Three West African leaders spent the day meeting protagonists in the main southern commercial city Abidjan Tuesday with no visible sign of progress on having Mr. Gbagbo leave power.  The side of his rival Alassane Ouattara said its own position of Mr. Ouattara as president was also not negotiable.

Diplomats have said Mr. Gbagbo and his hardline supporters have been offered a combination of international protection from prosecution, promises of asylum and money, but that they are refusing such advances, preferring an inquiry into the election and vote counting.

The West African grouping ECOWAS, as well as the United Nations, the African Union and many countries all say Mr. Ouattara won the November 28 election, as initially announced by the national election commission.  But the Ivorian constitutional council threw out votes from the rebel-held north, charging fraud, and gave victory to Mr. Gbagbo.

A planned pro-Gbagbo march scheduled for Wesdnesday was postponed indefinitely, to give time, its organizers said, for more diplomacy. But in a sign of the potential for more violence to come, Tuesday, a U.N. peacekeeping convoy was attacked by a mob, and one peacekeeper was injured by a machete.

J. Peter Pham, a U.S.-based Africa analyst, says the Ivorian crisis comes at a terrible time, as key African and world leaders will soon have many other pressing issues to deal with. "Nigeria, the heavyweight on the block, has not only internal violence which has been increasing but it has got the presidential primaries of its ruling party coming up in about two weeks time and it is distracted by that.  With the Sudan referendum also coming up, and everyone focused on that, especially the United States, this is a crisis that could not have happened at a worse time if you will from the point of view of getting international focus on it," he said.

In the last round of violence which took place in Abidjan earlier this month during an attempt by Mr. Ouattara's supporters to occupy state buildings, human rights investigators say more than 170 people were killed. They also say nighttime raids were carried out by pro-Gbagbo security forces and militia, leading to dozens of cases of torture, disappearances and arrests.

Pham does not believe the threat of outside military action made by ECOWAS to topple Mr. Gbagbo will be carried out, for logistical reasons as well as future considerations for the credibility of having neutral peacekeeping forces.

He says even though the election was delayed five years, Mr. Gbagbo and his supporters were clearly not ready to leave power.

Daniel Chirot, a U.S.-based sociologist who has closely studied the situation in Ivory Coast, had also predicted this outcome. "Any sort of a solution has to be based on this realization that you do not just fix a deeply divided society by holding an election in which one side wins and the other side loses and then feels that it has to reject the results of the election," he said.

Former rebels who still occupy the north of Ivory Coast said they started their insurgency in late 2002 in part because Mr. Ouattara had not been allowed to run in previous elections, amid doubts concerning his nationality. They also wanted more northerners, many of them undocumented residents and the descendants of migrant workers, to be allowed to vote.

G. Pascal Zachary, another U.S.-based African analyst and widely read blogger, says the so-called international community has pursued a very technical, election-based approach to the Ivory Coast problem.

"There is no real effort on the part of these outsiders to understand anything about Ivory Coast. It is all just, here is a technical process, just follow it but you see the shortcomings of that. It is both promising but also the difficulties that (Mr.) Ouattara will face if he does take full control of the government are not trivial, that the longer that this stalemate goes on the more that is a possible outcome, that people will just say, hey the world is a very messy place right now, let us just abandon Ivory Coast to this dysfunctional politics because one thing that a lot of African countries have shown and I think Ivory Coast has shown it as well is that commercial life can sometimes prove surprisingly resilient in the face of a political breakdown," he said.

Analysts say in cynical terms that Mr. Ouattara would have more to gain at this point from a resurgence of violence, in an aim to topple Mr. Gbagbo by force, and that Mr. Gbagbo is satisfied as long as he controls the army, ports, state media and lucrative cocoa fields in southern Ivory Coast.

They also say Mr. Ouattara's attempts to change Ivory Coast ambassadors abroad and strangle money from international banks have had little effect so far in terms of the balance of power in Abidjan. Tuesday, a statement read on state television said Ivory Coast would cut ties with countries that recognize a Ouattara appointment and threatened to expel their own diplomats. Mr. Ouattara, himself, remains holed up in a hotel protected by U.N peacekeepers and former rebels.

In terms of internal politics, Stephen Smith, an anthropologist and Africa expert at Duke University, says Mr. Ouattara may have made a tactical mistake when he re-appointed former rebel leader Guillaume Soro as prime minister in his until now symbolic post-election government.

Smith says it may have been wiser for Mr. Ouattara to further boost his election alliance with former President Henri Konan Bedie. "At least psychologically one would argue that that was a signal to say he needed an army. Gbagbo has the loyalist army and he (Mr. Ouattara) needed an army and he was ready to ally with the rebel forces.  I think that what actually pulled off his victory was his alliance with Bedie, a more centrist, and less militaristic, bellicose protagonist that he gave up very quickly and maybe hastily," he said.

So far, Mr. Bedie and his main backers have sided with Mr. Ouattara politically, but in terms of a people power type movement in Abidjan, calls for new marches against Mr. Gbagbo, for general civil disobedience and for a mass strike this week have largely been ignored.