As the end of the Ivory Coast presidential conflict draws near, the real crisis looms: how to rebuild.
- By Maja BovconMaja Bovcon is a doctoral student at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.
It’s been a tortuous few weeks in the Ivory Coast — but the turmoil would appear, at least at first glance, to be reaching a conclusion. After a loss in last fall’s long-delayed presidential elections, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, stubbornly refused to accept defeat and step down. Frustrated and tired of waiting for talks, armed forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally supported president-elect, decided to depose Gbagbo by force. Over days of fierce fighting in the economic capital of Abidjan, Gbagbo has seemed close to negotiating his departure on several occasions, only to recant and re-entrench. Nevertheless, it is believed that Gbagbo’s days are numbered, and everyone is eagerly awaiting the cathartic moment of his departure.
Cathartic it may be, but Gbagbo’s final ousting, whenever it comes, will not resolve all of the country’s problems, and the biggest hurdles for Ouattara’s new government are yet to come. Even under the best of circumstances, Ouattara will have an incredibly difficult task in trying to reunite the country and reconcile a polarized nation. The incoming president seems at least to understand what he’s up against. Speaking on Ivorian television on Thursday evening, he told the nation that he wanted to be the “president for all Ivorians, the protector of all the people.” The question now is whether his fellow citizens give him the chance.
The Ivory Coast has suffered through more than a decade of ethnic tension that has more than once burst into civil strife. Minority groups with ethnic, cultural, and religious ties to Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea have long been marginalized from political (and at times economic) life, considered less Ivorian than their fellow citizens. In 1994, the Ivorian-majority National Assembly under then president Henri Konan Bédié introduced a rule to prevent such minorities from reaching the presidency, a mechanism designed to exclude Ouattara, a former prime minister said to be of Burkinabe origin, from running in the 1995 and 2000 elections. That legislation opened the floodgates for a wave of racism, which engulfed every aspect of national life. Stricter rules for the acquisition of citizenship and land rights were introduced, for example, requiring that an applicant be Ivorian by birth and have two Ivorian parents.
By 2002, the frustrations that arose from these exclusionist and xenophobic policies broke out into a full-fledged civil war, splitting the country into the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south. Even today, many Ivorians in the south believe that Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, is not a true Ivorian. He will have to persuade many of the 46 percent of voters who marked Gbagbo on their ballots, most of whom reside in the south and in Abidjan, that he can legitimately represent them.
Over the last four months, the rebel troops that controlled the north in the last conflict backed Ouattara — a fact that will certainly not help the president-elect’s national image, since it fuels long-held suspicions, shared by Gbagbo’s supporters, that he was behind a failed military coup in 2002. More generally, Ouattara’s collaboration with the rebels and the use of military force to depose Gbagbo have stained the new president’s image as a peaceful, democratic leader. Even more damaging are reports of a massacre in the western town of Duékoué, in which forces loyal to Ouattara allegedly killed hundreds of civilians. The killings not only delegitimized the troops’ democratic cause but may also inspire reprisal killings in the future.
If Ouattara is to represent all Ivorians, he will need to promptly investigate and seek punishment for any crimes against civilians during this conflict, even if his supporters are found to be at fault. On April 7 in his address to the nation, he promised to do so, saying that anyone who used violence against the civilian population would be brought to justice. But in practice, that won’t be easy. A highly diverse group of people are currently fighting for Ouattara, many of whom are ad-hoc militias rather than professionally trained soldiers.
Ouattara will also need to find a way to explain his amicable relationship with France, another factor that could spark mistrust among Gbagbo backers. Ouattara’s wife is French, and the president-elect is rumored to be a friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The former colonial power in the Ivory Coast, France is widely resented — a fact that became all the more true after November 2004, when Gbagbo launched an unprovoked attack on a French military base and the French retaliated. Anti-French and anti-imperialist rhetoric was Gbagbo’s primary tool as he consolidated his regime and broadened his support base beyond his Bété ethnic group; this was clearly part of France’s reluctance to assume a more active role in the resolution of the Ivorian crisis. But when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote to Sarkozy on April 3, requesting French military help in protecting civilians, Paris did step in to enforce the peacekeepers’ mandate.
The United Nations and France claim that the recent decision to bomb Gbagbo’s strategic positions was taken when Gbagbo’s troops started to use heavy weapons, such as mortars and rocket launchers, against civilians and the U.N. headquarters in Abidjan. However, it has been lost on no one that their military operation coincided with an unsuccessful siege of Gbagbo’s presidential palace led by Ouattara’s troops. Gbagbo’s supporters may easily interpret France and the U.N.’s intervention primarily as assistance to Ouattara, rather than an operation aimed at protecting civilians.
France’s central role in negotiations to force Gbagbo out — Paris insisted that he sign a document recognizing Ouattara’s presidency — certainly did not help in countering this impression. Evidently, such an intervention was warranted, as the crisis began to get bloodier and more entrenched. And the regional economic body of West Africa, ECOWAS, wouldn’t have been able to pull it off with the speed and agility that the French did. But an ECOWAS-led rather than U.N. and French-backed military operation would have sent, perhaps, a more conciliatory message to the Ivorian people.
And so Ouattara is in a pickle. One possible solution would be to form a unity government that includes members of Gbagbo’s cabinet. But Gbagbo himself must be excluded. Coalition cabinets in Kenya and Zimbabwe — where post-electoral crises originating from an incumbent’s refusal to step down were resolved with the creation of a unity government — have proved disastrous. In both cases, sharing power between the incumbent and the main opposition leader turned out to be little more than the prolongation of an uneasy status quo. In fact, since the first military coup in December 1999, the Ivory Coast itself has gone through several more or less inefficient interim unity governments. The last one, resulting from the signature of the Ouagadougou peace agreement in 2007, should make clear how dangerous a unity government could be. Then, Gbagbo successfully sidelined every other political leader, ensuring that he set the terms of the country’s future. In many ways, he was just buying time to prepare for the elections that he has just lost.
Other options to overcome the crisis include a constitutional change that would move the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system, with more room for diverse ruling coalitions. Decentralizing the country to empower local and regional governments could also help reduce regional tensions between ethnic groups. But neither of these options is seriously considered by Ivorian politicians in the short-term.
So Gbagbo’s removal, when it finally comes, will be an important step in the resolution of this crisis — but it will be just the first. Ouattara will have to rebuild economy, put a stop to impunity (including among his own ranks), and build strong democratic institutions in the hopes of preventing similar scenarios in the future. Above all, he will have to convince Gbagbo’s supporters that he is their leader — a fellow Ivorian.