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Endgame in Abidjan

When French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that outgoing Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was in negotiations to surrender, he hailed the resolution of the crisis as a success by the international community. "Today, France can be proud to have participated in the defense and expression of democracy in the Ivory Coast," he said, proclaiming ...

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

When French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that outgoing Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was in negotiations to surrender, he hailed the resolution of the crisis as a success by the international community. "Today, France can be proud to have participated in the defense and expression of democracy in the Ivory Coast," he said, proclaiming the last four months of international engagement a wild success. 

But at the end of a very long day, following massacres in the West of the country and a days-long siege on Abidjan, it’s hard to see how anyone can be proud of how this has unfolded. A contested election degenerated into a four-month electoral stand-off that has left at least 1,500 people dead, has caused about 200,000 refugees over the borders, and displaced another several hundred thousand within the Ivory Coast.

This is not a shining example of how to negotiate a solution to conflict. It’s a case in which everything went very, very wrong. And it’s a visceral example of how one, very stubborn man, can ruin a nation.

From day one, this crisis looked messy. After an election that was postponed countless times for half a decade, the voting finally took place in November — and it was clean. But the Gbagbo government resisted releasing the results. When it became clear that the opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won the vote, Gbagbo tried to fudge, disqualifying votes until his total polling was higher. When that didn’t work — after all, the United Nations, African Union, and every Western country had already recognized Ouattara — he just did what any power-grabbing president would: He took the oath of office and stayed put.

At first, the African Union, and particularly the West African economic bloc ECOWAS, made loud noises about unseating Gbagbo, arguing that they were even ready to use military intervention if necessary. But when it became clear that this was just talk — Nigeria, the heavyweight that would have had to back such action, is about to have (potentially flawed) elections of its own —  Gbagbo’s confidence only grew. The world tried economic sanctions; Gbagbo got around them. It tried sending envoys; Gbagbo refused them. It even tried offering Gbagbo a "dignified exit," probably in a country of his choosing at that point.

That the crisis dragged on so long was precisely the reason it became so bad. The Ivory Coast’s economy shut down; the country defaulted on its debt in January. Investors grew anxious, and time seemed to stop. But most devastatingly, throughout those weeks, both Gbagbo- and Ouattara-loyal troops were preparing for a military solution. For Gbagbo forces, much of that meant actively thwarting the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country. For Ouattara, that meant weeks of planning an offensive march toward the commercial capital to unseat Gbagbo personally. 

On the streets of Abidjan, we now have a visceral picture of what both sides were preparing for. After a weekend of fighting, Ouattara-loyal troops had taken most of the city, save for the presidential palace area, where Gbagbo is holed up. His resistance was strong enough that the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission, with the help of France, went on the offensive. After a day during which the United Nations warned  citizens of the city not to go outside, Gbagbo finally looks interested in thinking about stepping down.

But let’s name the things that have gone wrong: Negotiations failed; economic sanctions failed; the U.N. peacekeeping mission was thwarted, though it later regained initaitive. A military siege has not yet succeeded and regardless comes at a high cost. The French have gotten involved militarily, which was surely the last thing they wanted to do in a former colony where resentment toward their influence runs incredibly high. The humanitarian situation is as precarious as it has been in the last decade.

Now is no time to celebrate. If and when this political stand-off ends, the Ivory Coast is going to be broken.

It’s incredible to reflect on what that means: that one man, Laurent Gbagbo, could push a country to the brink of  self destruction, costing thousands of lives, billions of lost economic dollars, and an uncountable toll of human suffering. The world didn’t fail to end this crisis for want of trying; it failed because there were no good answers. It’s particularly striking given how many things were working in favor of this being resolved. The country already had a 11,000-strong peacekeeping mission. There was from the beginning been international consensus about the outcome of the elections.

If we can be proud of how the Ivory Coast turns out, it will only be in one way: As a cautionary tale for the strongman who decides to stick around. This — Ivory Coast today — is what you will do to your country.

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