Africa takes the lead in resolving Ivory Coast’s crisis

As Ivory Coast faced an electoral crisis with two presidential candidates declaring victory after a November 28 runoff election, African leaders decided to take the lead in preventing a descent into civil war. Earlier this month, the African Union dispatched its favorite diplomatic troubleshooter to Abidjan, Thabo Mbeki, the former South African leader who led ...

560045_101221_Thabo2.jpg
560045_101221_Thabo2.jpg
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki (L) meets with Ivory Coast incumbent Laurent Gbagbo (R) at the presidential residence in Abidjan on december 5, 2010. Mbeki arrived in Ivory Coast today in a bid to mediate an end to a worsening political crisis after rival poll candidates swore themselves in as president. Mbeki, dispatched by the 53-member African Union (AU), arrived as world powers called for a peaceful resolution to the disputed election betwen incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara. AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

As Ivory Coast faced an electoral crisis with two presidential candidates declaring victory after a November 28 runoff election, African leaders decided to take the lead in preventing a descent into civil war.

Earlier this month, the African Union dispatched its favorite diplomatic troubleshooter to Abidjan, Thabo Mbeki, the former South African leader who led landmark secret talks to end his country’s apartheid system of discrimination, and who would later go on to mediate peace efforts in Zimbabwe and Sudan.

The Mbeki mission was aimed at coaxing Ivory Coast’s long-time ruler, Laurent Gbagbo, to quietly step down, accept an exile along with his wife Simone Gbagbo, in South Africa, and pave the way to a peaceful transfer of power to the country’s opposition leader and presumed winner, Alassane Oattara, according to officials and diplomats briefed on the mission. (One diplomat said the deal was sweetened with an offer of a lucrative severance package).

But the mediation effort foundered, setting the stage for a resumption of violence that is threatening to involve not only Ivory Coast’s rival armed factions, but also a 9,000-person U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Gbagbo’s wife, a formidable political power in her own right who was accused in a 2004 internal U.N. investigation of organizing and running death squads, rejected the proposal outright. “Simone Gbagbo objected to leaving Cote d’Ivoire,” said one official briefed on the talks.”Gbagbo was non-committal but willing to consider. The only thing he said was, ‘I could consider it but I have 300 people around me who need the same treatment.'” This, according to the official, was not on offer.

As a back up, Mbeki broached the prospect of a power-sharing deal. Gbagbo would later commit only to considering extending an invitation to Ouattara to join his government as a vice president. For his part, Ouattara made it clear he would only participate in such talks if Gbagbo recognized him as the victor in the country’s election, a condition that Gbagbo was unwilling to accept. But significantly, Mbeki’s push for a power-sharing deal for his long-time friend and ally enjoyed little support from other leaders in the region, who fear it would simply institutionalize the country’s political conflict in the very fabric of a new government. 

In the weeks following Mbeki’s visit, Gbagbo’s supporters have resorted to force to ensure his claim to power, ordering U.N. peacekeepers out of the country, opening fire on pro-Ouattara demonstrators last Thursday and cutting off food and medical supplies to Ouattara’s headquarters at the Golf Hotel. At least 100 pro-Gbagbo Liberian mercenaries have arrived in the country in recent weeks, according to Matt Wells, Human Rights’ Watch’s Ivory Coast researcher.

“Since Saturday night, it appears activities in the night have picked up,” said Wells. “Whether one calls them death squads or not it’s a little too early to say. But clearly there has been movement by security forces in heavy-opposition neighborhoods at night, firing in the air, arresting people — a large number of people have been dragged away from their homes at night.”

The United Nations also claims that unarmed men have roamed the streets of Abidjan, abducting civilians in opposition neighborhoods, and harassing U.N. staffers in their homes. Last week, a U.N. peacekeeping contingent exchanged fire with an armed group.  Government forces, meanwhile, have turned back U.N. and U.S. officials from visiting an alleged mass burial site in a wooded area on the outskirts of the Yopougon neighborhood in Abidjan

“It is clear that President Gbagbo’s camp is doing everything to make life difficult for us, including by blocking our supplies and by harassing our personnel, and carrying out provocations, some armed,”  the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, told reporters Monday.

The African Union, and an alliance of West African governments, led by Nigeria, have rallied the U.S., France and the U.N., to support a call for Gbagbo to leave or face isolation and sanctions.  The European Union is set to impose a European travel ban on Gbagbo, his wife Simone, and 17 other backers. The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, voted on Monday to extend the mandate of the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, dismissing Gbagbo’s call for their withdrawal.

On Friday, Nigerian leader Jonathan Goodluck, sent a private letter to Gbagbo saying that it was time for him to step down, providing the latest effort by African leaders to pave the way to a peaceful transition of power to the country’s winner, according to diplomatic sources briefed on the exchange. This time there was no offer of mediation.

The letter — which was delivered to Gbagbo by African Union chairman Jean Ping — showed the African Union’s patience with Gbagbo is running thin. But it also underscored the lack of leverage that African leaders have been capable of applying, particularly in the face of stiff resistance from Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, and his top lieutenant, Charles Ble Goude, the powerful youth minister, who has been rallying Gbagbo’s supporters to fight for the country’s sovereignty.

A confidential 2005 U.N. report says that Ivory Coast’s first lady, Simone Gbagbo, directed a death squad responsible for killing rivals of her husband’s government (for more information, read my story in the Washington Post here.) The report, written by a five-member U.N. commission of inquiry, also says that more than 90 other people, including senior rebel officials, committed extrajudicial killings and kidnappings and fomented ethnic hatred.

Ivory Coast’s U.N. ambassador, Philippe D. Djangone-Bi, denied the accusation against Simone Gbagbo at the time, saying she has struggled for 30 years to promote democracy and human rights. “It is untrue; to the best of my knowledge it’s not true,” he said. “It’s unimaginable that she would organize to kill those who do not think like her. These are allegations meant to demonize the authorities.”

An international prosecutor never conducted a formal investigation into the case. But the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, warned today that he would pursue charges against armed groups that attack peacekeepers or against public officials who incite their followers to take up arms. He also sought to use the threat of prosecution to strengthen the African’s negotiating leverage.

“First, let me be clear: I have not yet opened an investigation. But, if serious crimes under my jurisdiction are committed, I will do so,” he said. “Those leaders who are planning violence will end up in the Hague.”

Folow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.
A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.

No, the World Is Not Multipolar

The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.
The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.

America Can’t Stop China’s Rise

And it should stop trying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.

The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky

The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.