Waiting out a strongman in the Ivory Coast

It’s been over two months now that the Ivory Coast has had two presidents — one elected, according to internationally certified results, and one who just refuses to step down. In that time, neither shuttle diplomacy, nor international scorn, nor an amped up U.N. presence, nor sanctions, nor anything else has worked to dislodge the ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images
SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images
SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

It's been over two months now that the Ivory Coast has had two presidents -- one elected, according to internationally certified results, and one who just refuses to step down. In that time, neither shuttle diplomacy, nor international scorn, nor an amped up U.N. presence, nor sanctions, nor anything else has worked to dislodge the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo. And so this perilous ritual has becoming a game: Who can outlast the other. Will the world lose resolve first, or will Gbagbo's sanctioned administration run out of money?

For the moment, the latter hope -- that Gbagbo's coffers will run dry -- is about as good as it gets in terms of a solution to the problem. Now sanctioned by the European Union, the United States, the African Union, and the regional West-African economic group ECOWAS, Gbagbo is running out of options. The West African Central Bank, which was leaking him money, was purged of the the Gbagbo supporters. Alassane Ouattara, the election winner,thas pushed for an export ban on cocoa, the country's largest agricultural product. Instead of leaving through the ports of Abidjan, the product gets exported through Ghana, avoiding a tariff that would have gone to Gbagbo. Two private banks pulled out of the country this week, and it's now unclear if Gbagbo will have the money to pay his army and civil servants. Until now, the government bureacracy has been supportive of his staying in power -- in part at least because those checks were still coming. If he does go bankrupt, public opinion could shift and his supporters could dump him. 

But there's a lot of perils to waiting this one out. For one, it just might not work: Gbagbo is finding ways around the cocoa export trade, for example. His supporters are seeking buyers in China and Russia who might not be as inclined to comply with the export ban. 

It’s been over two months now that the Ivory Coast has had two presidents — one elected, according to internationally certified results, and one who just refuses to step down. In that time, neither shuttle diplomacy, nor international scorn, nor an amped up U.N. presence, nor sanctions, nor anything else has worked to dislodge the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo. And so this perilous ritual has becoming a game: Who can outlast the other. Will the world lose resolve first, or will Gbagbo’s sanctioned administration run out of money?

For the moment, the latter hope — that Gbagbo’s coffers will run dry — is about as good as it gets in terms of a solution to the problem. Now sanctioned by the European Union, the United States, the African Union, and the regional West-African economic group ECOWAS, Gbagbo is running out of options. The West African Central Bank, which was leaking him money, was purged of the the Gbagbo supporters. Alassane Ouattara, the election winner,thas pushed for an export ban on cocoa, the country’s largest agricultural product. Instead of leaving through the ports of Abidjan, the product gets exported through Ghana, avoiding a tariff that would have gone to Gbagbo. Two private banks pulled out of the country this week, and it’s now unclear if Gbagbo will have the money to pay his army and civil servants. Until now, the government bureacracy has been supportive of his staying in power — in part at least because those checks were still coming. If he does go bankrupt, public opinion could shift and his supporters could dump him. 

But there’s a lot of perils to waiting this one out. For one, it just might not work: Gbagbo is finding ways around the cocoa export trade, for example. His supporters are seeking buyers in China and Russia who might not be as inclined to comply with the export ban. 

More worrying is that, with every day that passes, the international political support  for booting out Gbagbo grows weaker and weaker. Signs of splits within the African Union are most notable; reports indicate that a high-level panel of experts doesn’t agree on what to do next in Cote D’Ivoire. (And the emissaries the AU has sent aren’t exactly all democrats: Most recently, long-time aruling Equitorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang visited.)

Here’s the worst part, however: Political violence is on the uptick. An AP report today reports that death squads, allegedly targetting Ouattara’s political opponent, are exacting an incredible toll: 

Nearly every day since Laurent Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 election, the bodies of people who voted for his opponent have been showing up on the sides of highways. Their distraught families have gone from police station to police station looking for them, but the bodies are hidden in plain sight in morgues turned into mass graves.

Maybe the world can afford to wait Gbagbo out. But maybe the Ivory Coast can’t. 

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.