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Back to civil war in Ivory Coast?

For the last six years, Ivory Coast’s government-controlled south and rebel-controlled north have held together thanks to a fragile cease-fire. Everyone’s greatest fear since the cease-fire was signed was that it would break — that the tiniest escalation could bring the country back into the brutal civil war it endured between the two sides throughout ...

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images.
SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images.

For the last six years, Ivory Coast’s government-controlled south and rebel-controlled north have held together thanks to a fragile cease-fire. Everyone’s greatest fear since the cease-fire was signed was that it would break — that the tiniest escalation could bring the country back into the brutal civil war it endured between the two sides throughout the first half of the decade.

Early Thursday morning, the cease-fire broke in Ivory Coast’s interior. The government forces and the rebel forces — known as the Forces Nouvelles — started shooting. And they haven’t really stopped since then. This morning, the Forces Nouvelles seized a government- controlled town.

The fighting in the countryside is a manifestation of escalating political conflict in the Abidjan. Outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo (backed by government troops) remains staunchly unwilling to step down to the internationally recognized election winner, Alassane Ouattara (backed by the Forces Nouvelles). On the streets and in the neighborhoods of Abidjan, things are also getting ugly — or rather uglier. After weeks of rumors and reports that pro-Gbagbo militias were hunting down opposition supporters, now there are signs that the violence cuts both ways. Pro-Ouattara militias — known to locals as "invisible commandos" — have risen up in resistance. "Hundreds" of residents were seen streaming out of the neighborhood after overnight clashes.

Not so long ago, the West African community, ECOWAS, was talking about possible military intervention if Gbagbo refused to step down. But these days, there’s only talk about a possible unity government between the two rivals — a terrible idea, if you ask me — and continued economic sanctions. The international community has done a pretty good job of trying to starve Gbagbo of cash. And in theory it’s a good strategy, since much of his support comes from his uncanny ability to keep salaries flowing even in the trickiest times. But Gbagbo is not too easily caged, and is now considering printing his own currency. At the very least, he’ll switch all the government accounts from sanctioned banks into hard cash.

As I’ve written before, this is the trouble with trying to wait out a strongman: You risk the very real chance that he can wait longer than his people can. While Gbagbo is busy finding ways to pay his military, regular Ivorians are getting tired. Shortages of food and cooking oil are now common; a whopping nine out of every 10 bank accounts is now inaccessible due to sanctions and freezes. Some 45,000 people have now fled the country as refugees, and another 39,000 are internally displaced — 9,000 of whom are all based at a single Catholic mission near the border with Liberia, according to a briefing from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees this morning.

Active fighting, refugees, economic crisis — what other indicators are we waiting for? This is becoming a civil war again, and fast.

Tag: Africa

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