December 26, 2010

Côte d'Ivoire: All Sides Showing War

Like an anaconda, the West and African states have converged on Côte d'Ivoire to squeeze the life out of disputed president Laurent Gbagbo. Round after round of sanctions have frozen his family’s assets and grounded his private plane, at the request of challenger and internationally-recognized president Alassane Ouattara. As these measures proved insufficient in themselves, both America and France (through the UN) and neighboring African states have threatened the legitimate use of force as a last resort.

While this warning could sound like a necessary bluff to force Gbagbo’s resignation, the UN and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) better have their chips ready. Côte d'Ivoire perches on the abyss of another civil war and only an 11th hour miracle will save it.

Côte d'Ivoire’s future could very well be decided Tuesday when an ECOWAS delegation from Benin, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde visits Abidjan. Gbagbo's Interior Minister, Emile Guirieoulou, told a news conference that his government would "welcome the three heads of states as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey.” However these “brothers and friends” are expected to deliver an ultimatum that Gbagbo stand down or be removed from power.

And Gbagbo still isn’t listening to this message.

"I think that the use of force is forbidden in the international relation of any country," Yao Gnamien, Gbagbo's special adviser, told Al Jazeera from Abdijan. "It [force] is against the charter of the United Nations. The UN cannot use force against the president. The AU cannot use force against our president... The AU or the UN have to identify clearly what the purpose of the crisis and they have to sit down and solve the problem. Why do we have to use force?"

Gbagbo himself told Le Figaro, "If there is an internal conflict, a civil war, there will be risks because we will not allow our rights, our constitution, to be trampled on. People have to remember that. We are not afraid. We are not the aggressors."

Though Gbagbo talks a big game, so far his actions match his bravado. Gbagbo accuses ECOWAS of conspiring a “Western plot direct by France,” an allegation often thrown at the technocratic Ouattara, who’s worked with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and enjoys support from the New Front rebels.

Ensuring a battle of wills, Ouattara's camp presently refuses any power sharing agreement like Kenya or Zimbabwe. So do ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). Ouattara, who believes he won the November 28 election outright, has been waiting too long to evict Gbagbo, whose term expired in 2005. The rising tide of international condemnation, plus the realistic possibility of force, has only steeled his will.

As for the AU and ECOWAS, they realize a power-sharing agreement would lead to a prolonged standoff rather than stability, much like Zimbabwe. They must get Côte d'Ivoire right now or deal with its long-term consequences.

Thus Ouattara has decided to play his trump card at this pivotal moment. ECOWAS’s delegation will land amid a general strike, which Ouattara's party announced by declaring, "We should not let them steal our victory." Ouattara’s supporters took to the streets in vain last week, meeting Gbagbo’s presidential guard and suffering at least 30 casualties. Since then the movement has laid low, especially as security personnel, paramilitary figures, and mercenaries conduct a fear campaign by night.

But with the world’s eye directly on Côte d'Ivoire, Ouattara appears to perceive the following days and weeks as the decisive moment. Calling for his supporters, theoretically over half of Côte d'Ivoire’s eligible voters, to “cease all activity” until Gbagbo resigns, Ouattara’s strike puts Côte d'Ivoire one step away from peace or war.

Looking ahead in the event that Gbagbo shuns the international community and prepares for an invasion, BBC’s John James reports that an international force would launch from Nigeria. ECOWAS’s leading member, president Goodluck Jonathan also happens to be presiding over the bloc, so Nigeria makes sense as a political and military staging ground. Although there could be some interplay between Côte d'Ivoire’s demands and Nigeria’s own insurgency, MEND (which we will examine shortly).

As for the invasion and war itself, Côte d'Ivoire is a fourth-generation disaster in the making. Though Gbabgo may be evicted from office with minimal effort, he’ll conduct a guerrilla insurgency from inside or outside the country until captured or terminated. Unlikely to meet an international force head on, Gbabgo will rely on guerrilla tactics and foreign mercenaries to drag the force down.

And make governering extremely difficult for Ouattara.

Already unstable and pervaded with armed groups, any large-scale campaign could displace millions and strain Côte d'Ivoire’s neighbors, similar to its previous civil war. The UN estimates that 15,000 have already fled the country's quarantined borders. Côte d'Ivoire could also lure AQIM-affiliated drug and weapons smugglers who run cocaine through the country.

Gbabgo will fight Ouattara to the death rather than accept his rule, which the ECOWAS, the AU, UN, Europe, and America must realize. They can’t bluff him when he’s willing to call them.


  1. Looks like another stalemate waiting to last for years. The ordinary people will suffer as usual while the West spins and manoeuvres (incompetently, as usual).

  2. Stalemate is probable whether politically or militarily. Given the lack of sophistication in ECOWAS's military capacity, a full fledged invasion is necessary to knock Gbagbo out, crush his security forces, and maintain law and order in the country. It's doubtful that ECOWAS and the UN, even with U.S. and French support, can achieve all of these goals.

    Problematically for the West, ECOWAS, AU, they've gone too far towards force to back down if Gbagbo resists. ECOWAS has already suspended Côte d'Ivoire so it's running out of options. Letting Gbagbo go would set a bad precedent.