The Ivory Coast: Behind Laurent Gbagbo’s Last Stand

The arrest on April 11 of Laurent Gbagbo, his wife and family and a small circle of “the faithful” in his fortified home in Abidjan brings to an end a five-month standoff between Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo was once a democratic leader imprisoned and exiled for his opposition to Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the Ivory Coast’s first and long-term president.

After his exile in France where Gbagbo had made a good number of friends in the ranks of the French Socialist Party, he returned to the Ivory Coast and was elected President in 2000.  North-South tensions in the Ivory Coast led to a civil war situation starting in 2002, bringing in both UN and French troops to try to stabilize a country fairly evenly divided into two.

With the down turn in the price of cocoa and coffee — the Ivory Coast’s two major export crops — the economic situation remained fragile and money by buy loyalty — Houphouet-Boigny’s prime technique —  could be used less.  However, the Ivory Coast was more prosperous than its neighbors, and a good number of Africans, Europeans, and increasingly Chinese had come to work in the country often as permanent residents.

The unstable condition of the country had served as a pretext to postpone new presidential elections, and thus Laurent Gbagbo remained President for over 10 years. Elections were finally held in November 2010 with the opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara clearly winning a two-round election.  The United Nations, which had financed and supervised the election, proclaimed Ouattara the victor as did the African Union election observers.

Laurent Gbagbo could then have turned over the government to Alassane Ouattara, whose policy positions were little different from those of Gbagbo; Ouattara had been an economist at the International Monetary Fund for a good number of years.

Ouattara is from the north of the Ivory Coast, lived part of his life in neighboring Burkina Faso and is said to be personally close to Blaise Compaore, the President of Burkina Faso. He is a Muslim as are most of those from the north, but there is nothing particularly related to religion in his policies or his friendship with other African leaders. Gbagbo is from the south, a Christian who has become, with his wife, more fundamentalist as he has aged.

While the north-south division between the two men did not particularly influence their personal relations, it is likely to increase tensions among their followers. Already there has been an investigation of mass killings in the small city of Duekoue led by Ivan Simonovic, the newly appointed UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights based in New York. He found a pattern of revenge killings among supporters of Gbagno and Ouattara along tribal/ethnic lines.  If there is not a speedy program of national reconciliation, such revenge killings may grow.

As then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote in 1999 “Democracy is a form on non-violent conflict management. While the result is highly desirable, the process of democratization can be highly destabilizing…At such times different groups can become more conscious of their unequal status, and nervous about each other’s power. Too often, they resort to pre-emptive violence. But that should not discourage us from urging the right sort of democratization as part of our development policies.”

Laurent Gbagbo could have left the presidency shortly after the November 28, 2010 elections. Instead, he refused to leave the presidency and armed his close followers. There followed four months of violence, refugee flows, and a disorientation of the economy.

Now, there are two challenges facing the new President Ouattara: the first is national reconciliation among deeply divided peoples, and the second challenge is a restructuring of the economy.  The two challenges are closely related. If enough people put their energy into economic reconstruction, ethnic/religious/political identities may fade into the background.  Economic reconstruction will require a quick influx of money which may hesitate to come given the political tensions. China is the most likely source of fresh money so that the Chinese are the most probable beneficiaries of the conflict.

Since both the UN and French troops were already in the Ivory Coast, under a recent Security Council mandate to protect the civilian population, both entities played an active role to destroy the weapons and oppose the men under the control of Laurent Gbagbo. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that what would happen in the Ivory Coast would have an impact on UN policy in the rest of Africa. The follow up to the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo will merit watching.

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.