Ivory Coast: Massacre in the West, Siege in the East

Ivory Coast: Massacre in the West, Siege in the East

War has returned to the Ivory Coast in the shape of massacres, mercenaries, a besieged capital, and a humanitarian nightmare. Over the last week, a political deadlock that was by all accounts frozen has become a heated contest on the battlefield. Make no mistake: This was the worst-case scenario mapped out for the Ivory Coast back in November when this crisis began.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the city of  Duékoué, a key town in the West of the country close to the Liberian border. Forces loyal to the president elect, Alassane Ouattara, took the city last week. But over the weekend it became clear that the fighting took an incredible toll. The International Committee of the Red Cross announced last Friday that an estimated 800 had died; then Caritas put the number at 1,000. Reporting from Duékoué, the BBC’s Andrew Harding– the only English-speaking reporter there as far as I can tell — writes that he counted 20 corpses in just one city block, children among them. Ouattara’s forces, who put the figure much lower, claim that the killings were the result of community militias fighting one another in the wake of power changing hands. The administration blamed the U.N. peacekeepers for being absent and allowing the mess to unfold.  

Meanwhile in the capital, the Republic Guard elite forces loyal to the outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo are fiercely deterring an attempt by Ouattara’s forces to storm the presidential palace, where it’s thought that Gbagbo is holed up. Shots were heard throughout the weekend, though the exact situation is quite unclear. Reports are filtering out through social media that Gbagbo has been using human shields to block bridges around the palace. In one alarming development this morning, a leading Gbagbo general who had previously sought refuge in the South African embassy as a defector has now returned to the battlefield to fight on behalf of the outgoing president.

And in an ominous move reminiscent of Rwanda, and more recently, Libya, French citizens are being gathered for evacuation, as the French army has taken over the aiport. There’s clearly a calculation being made that things are going to get worse. 

Even if the fighting doesn’t continue to escalate, Abidjan under siege is edging toward a humanitarian crisis. Residents of Abidjan today warned that they were running out of phone credit. Water has been cut off to parts of the city, so young women and children are often visible on the streets, scurrying with buckets to fill.

How did we end up here? After months of warnings that this country was on the brink of civil war, it has now been allowed to fall from the precipice. And it looks as if the world is fresh out of ideas about what to do. Economic sanctions failed to squeeze Gbagbo into retirement; so did enticements and final offers for amnesty. Everyone — Washington, Brussels, Paris, the U.N. — is calling for the protection of civilians. Clearly that’s not enough. Paul Collier had an interesting idea a while back to force defections within the army around Gbagbo, but that seems a bit late now. 

So here’s what’s probably going to happen: Ouattara’s forces, which are arguably the legitimate army in this country, will likely be allowed to fight on until Gbagbo is eventually ousted. Everyone will yell and scream that civilians should be protected in the meantime. But everyone knows that this crisis doesn’t end until Gbagbo goes, and again, we’re fresh out of other options.

I’m not convinced that it even ends then — after Gbagbo is forced out one way or another. Remember, this election was contested on a relatively close vote, and Gbagbo does retain support from a fair slice of the population. As much as Ouattara has talked about being the president for all Ivorians, the story on the ground is looking more complicated. This is about more than two men’s egos at this point. It’s about a country, back in civil war. And if we’d like to prevent a protracted armed conflict, maybe it’s time to start plotting out options if it comes to that.