What’s the next move in the Ivory Coast?

What’s the next move in the Ivory Coast?

Over the course of the last month, the international community has thrown everything it’s got at the Ivory Coast’s refusing-to-leave-office president, Laurent Gbagbo. They’ve tried sanctions. They’ve sent envoys. They’ve vowed to increase the number of U.N. peacekeepers. And they’ve cut off all funds to the Gbagbo camp. Barack Obama offered Gbagbo a dignified exit with amnesty in the United States. Even the idea of a unity government was floated, in which the widely recognized winner of the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, would join Gbagbo in a cabinet. Nothing has worked; and despite weeks of standoff, little has changed.

But the worse news is that the world is fast running out of plays to run.

The central conundrum isn’t, in fact, tactical. It’s strategic. Everyone from the African Union to Foggy Bottom to Beijing wants Gbagbo out and Ouattara in. That would be good news, except that the situation is dramatically different within the Ivory Coast. The population is actually quite divided. If Gbagbo were removed forcefully, it really could respark civil war.

So although the foreign powers have decided to get tough with Gbagbo, they really can’t afford to get too tough. Not that military intervention is popular either; Ghana has said it won’t be involved in such an action, and Nigeria is preparing for its own contentious elections at home — hardly the time to engage in military adventures abroad. No Western power will intervene — and the only one that cares enough about tiny Ivory Coast to do so is France, the country’s much-distrusted colonial power. Paris couldn’t touch the current situation without lighting it on fire.

Oxford economist Paul Collier had an idea this morning, as he wrote in the Guardian: to convince the military in the Ivory Coast to stop supporting Gbagbo. In theory that could work; Gbagbo is only able to remain in the presidential palace because of the military’s support. But as I mentioned before, this isn’t just about a few fringe supporters. Gbagbo’s got 50 percent of Ivorians behind him.  

I have to say, I’m fresh out of ideas too. My favored tactic had been to recruit former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to knock a few heads together. He’s a Big Man even among big men — someone who doesn’t even give you the option of disagreeing. But apparently the West African regional group ECOWAS had the same idea, to little avail. Obasanjo went to the Ivory Coast over the weekend and, well, Gbagbo is still in power. 

What I do know is that the country’s people probably have the best sense of where this is going. And they are betting on the future with their feet. Yesterday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that some 600 Ivorians are entering Liberia as refugees every day; there are some 25,000 in the neighboring country so far. And 16,000 more have fled their homes within the Ivory Coast. The U.N. is concerned enough about the influx to start building permanent camps.

If there’s a larger lesson here, it’s that ousting a strongman is never as easy as we’d like to think. It may be an obvious point, but in the particulars it’s actually profound. Even if the entire world musters its political might, the Laurent Gbagbo’s of the world — Robert Mugabe, Than Shwe, Kim Jong Il — would still be around.