The fog of war in Abidjan

The sound of heavy gunfire is thick in the air in Abidjan this morning; the situation is opaque. Correspondents on the ground for french radio RFI admit on air that they simply can’t confirm much about what’s going on amid the chaos. The streets are chillingly empty save for combattants. Rumors circulate about where the ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images
JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images
JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images

The sound of heavy gunfire is thick in the air in Abidjan this morning; the situation is opaque. Correspondents on the ground for french radio RFI admit on air that they simply can't confirm much about what's going on amid the chaos. The streets are chillingly empty save for combattants. Rumors circulate about where the fighting is, where it's going, and who's in charge. 

But what's clear is that the end game between political rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, both of whom claim to have won last November's presidential election (Ouattara actually did), is every bit as bloody and brutal as feared. After months of talking, this question is being answers with guns.

And to be clear: that's guns on all sides.

The sound of heavy gunfire is thick in the air in Abidjan this morning; the situation is opaque. Correspondents on the ground for french radio RFI admit on air that they simply can’t confirm much about what’s going on amid the chaos. The streets are chillingly empty save for combattants. Rumors circulate about where the fighting is, where it’s going, and who’s in charge. 

But what’s clear is that the end game between political rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, both of whom claim to have won last November’s presidential election (Ouattara actually did), is every bit as bloody and brutal as feared. After months of talking, this question is being answers with guns.

And to be clear: that’s guns on all sides.

There’s been a tendency — an understandable one — to single out  Gbagbo for the atrocities that his troops have committed. As the obsinate one in this political crisis, it’s Gbagob who is under sanction by the West and who the African Union is calling upon to step down. It’s Gbagbo whose forces fired upon and killed protestors, vividly captured on YouTube. It’s Gbagbo’s men who have refused to let the U.N. peacekeepers patrol Abidjan. It’s Gbagbo who gave weapons to civilians in Abidjan and asked them to defend him. And so naturally, it’s Gbagbo who most people expect to end up in the International Criminal Court, paying for his crimes. That’s what Ouattara’s troop are banking on; they have been ordered to guard his "physical integrity" should he be caught for precisely that reason. 

But it’s important not to forget that Ouattara-loyal forces are also fighting. And on the battlefield, there’s always a risk that atrocities could be committed. Reuters reports that Ouattara-loyal forces have remained disciplined so far, though they have executed some Gbagbo militiamen, according to Human Rights Watch. And yesterday, the United Nations called on Ouattara to "rein in" his forces as they take final control in Abidjan. When I was in Liberia earlier this months, officials in the peacekeeping mission there were adamant that refugees fleeing into that country were of all political persuasions — meaning that Gbagbo supporting civilians feared for their lives under pro-Ouattara forces, just as the opposite was also true.

The fog of war clouds everything for the moment; it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for what — and against whom. But it’s important to look at all sides of the fighting, because  when the dust settles, Cote d’Ivoire is going to be torn apart. Civilians of all political persuasions are going to have horror stories to tell. And if only half the perpetrators are selectively brought to justice, it will be no justice at all; a society divided cannot be stable for long. 

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

Tag: Africa

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