- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based Deca journalist.
Forces of president-elect Alassane Ouattara arrested outoing President Laurent Gbagbo at his residence in Abidjan on Monday, after an assault on the compound that involved French and U.N. troops. Reuters reported that 30 tanks made their way from the French military base toward the neighborhood where Gbagbo resides. The battle that followed has finally put an end to a four-month long crisis over who was running the Ivory Coast.
Well, at least the immediate crisis. The hard part — getting this country back to normality — still awaits.
The most immediate complication will be the way that Gbagbo finally left power: with the help of the French. Initial reports of the arrest indicated that the French special forces were the ones who had made the catch; French officials and Ouattara government spokesmen have since emphasized that it was the Ivorian president’s troops who have detained Gbagbo. But at this point, that’s a detail. The French have been intimately involved in this operation since last week, including by bombing the heavy arms held by the Gbagbo loyalists. There’s no question that the French troops were vital in securing this end to the conflict.
That’s tricky because, in this former French colony, resentment toward Paris runs high — a sentiment that Gbagbo became a master of channeling as man of the people. In his final days, he decried French influence in the crisis and said that the country’s troops were trying to assasinate him. To his supporters, the pictures of French helicopters and tanks surrounding their leader’s compound could transform Gbagbo into a martyr. The fear is that this could give a second wind to the fighters who have quit Gbagbo’s side in recent days. Either way, Ouattara will have to work hard in his initial days to prove that he is not in bed with the Elysee.
Another tricky bit to watch: how the Ouattara-loyal forces and the Gbagbo-loyal military — officially the national army — integrate (or don’t) after this all ends. There were mass defections from the Gbagbo troops to the Ouattara loyalists during the latter’s march through Abidjan. Still, it’s clear that at least 1,000 forces remained with Gbagbo to the end. And there are perhaps even more militias who were paid to fight but held allegiance to no one side or the other.
There’s very good reason to be hopeful about Ouattara’s ability to bring his polarized country back together. In a speech on Thursday, he acknowledged the splits, promised to investigate the mass of atrocities that have been committed during these last weeks, and proclaimed that he would be the president for all Ivorians, whether they voted for him or not. But Ouattara’s spokesmen have also been adamant that their loyal troops were not involved in a massacre in the West of the country — a claim that Human Rights Watch made this weekend in a seering report.
Immediate priorities of course are ending the violence, ensuring that militias stop prowling through Abidjan, getting the millions of people in that city access to water, food, electricity, and other supplies that have become scarce during the week-long siege. That would be enough for any president to accomplish in his first year — let alone in the weeks that Ouattara will have to do it before patience runs thin. And then — only then — will the real work begin.