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 ...
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
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