Côte d’Ivoire Standoff Continues

Reports of violence are mounting in Côte d’Ivoire as incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo continues in his refusal to relinquish power to Alassane Ouattara, broadly recognized by the international community as the legitimate winner of the country’s November 28 presidential runoff election. The United Nations estimates the death toll at 210 and has reported some 500 incidents of arbitrary arrests and disappearances. An estimated 18,000 Ivoirians in the country’s “Wild West” have crossed the border into neighboring Liberia, and ethnic clashes in the west, which have previously drawn in fighters from Liberia, have escalated in recent weeks. Ouattara, still hunkered down in Abidjan’s Golf Hotel, has called for military intervention by the West African regional grouping ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to remove Gbagbo from power and retake government offices and media outlets. In response, Charles Blé Goudé, leader of the pro-Gbagbo militia, the Jeunes Patriotes, has called on supporters to prepare themselves for combat and “liberate” the country.

Gbagbo has remained obdurate in the face of mounting sanction and isolation, rejecting calls for his resignation and rebuffing offers from the United States and West African neighbors for amnesty or a face-saving exit. The erstwhile president has called these efforts an “attempted coup d’état under the banner of the international community” and insisted that outsiders respect the country’s constitution, institutions, and national sovereignty. The international community, including the African Union (AU), which in the past has been swayed by appeals to national sovereignty, is having none of it this time.

Q1: There are many flawed elections in Africa. Why has this one mobilized such a unified international response?

In the first instance, there is a strong legal case for international involvement. In signing the AU-brokered Pretoria Accord in 2005 and the ECOWAS-brokered Ouagadougou Accord of 2007, Gbagbo himself explicitly invited the United Nations and ECOWAS to engage in all phases of the electoral process to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections and to act as guarantors of the agreements. An amendment to the Ivoirian electoral code in 2008, by Gbagbo’s decree, gives the UN special representative in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as the ECOWAS facilitator (President Blaise Campaoré of Burkino Faso), a role in certifying the results. Security Council Resolution 1765, issued in 2007, gives the UN special representative in Côte d’Ivoire the mandate of certifying the election processes and results. On the domestic front, the Ivorian Constitutional Court has the power either to annul or endorse election results in their entirety, but it is not empowered to simply cancel results in select precincts and thereby change the final tally.

Second, there is strong aversion from both African and Western leaders to reinforcing the precedent of government by negotiation. The idea that an incumbent who loses an election need only hang on and threaten violence in order to obtain a power-sharing deal is a dangerous blow to democracy in a continent that will see some 15 national elections in the coming year. The African Union, which now fairly unanimously condemns military coups, will need to find more effective ways of grappling with electoral manipulations and standoffs, and Côte d’Ivoire will be an important test of the organization’s principles and leverage, as well as those of the broader international community.

Third, Côte d’Ivoire is a major test of the world’s capacity to prevent conflict, not simply to intervene once violence escalates. The Ivoirian standoff threatens a renewed conflict in Côte d’Ivoire that could be very violent indeed and could undermine progress in the broader West African region, particularly post-conflict Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the international community has invested considerable diplomatic, development, and security resources to pacify and rebuild.

Q2: How effective has the international response been?

In many ways the international response has been exemplary, buttressed by the legal basis for intervention and by the quick response of African regional leadership. ECOWAS and the African Union took an early lead in crying foul, with both organizations recognizing Ouattara as president and suspending Côte d’Ivoire’s membership. Their voice was almost certainly critical in bringing China and Russia on board in the UN Security Council in recognizing Ouattara as the winner, although the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, reportedly played an important role in doggedly persuading the initially reluctant Russians to agree. High-level outreach by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, African Union chair Jean Ping, a delegation of three ECOWAS presidents, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has proved fruitless, and Gbagbo refused to take personal phone calls from both President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and President Obama. A gradual layering on of sanctions—suspension of World Bank assistance and funding from the West African Central Bank, travel bans against Gbagbo and his coterie by the United States and European Union, and most recently freezing of Gbagbo’s U.S. assets—have been accompanied by offers of amnesty and a face-saving exit, although international appetite for the latter is quickly waning as the death toll mounts.

Gbagbo’s most ardent African supporter is Gambia’s kooky president Yahya Jammeh, and there is an effort under way to win support from Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Angola, whose president Edoardo dos Santos is close to Gbagbo, has said that it will not interfere in the country’s sovereign affairs. There may be room for diplomatic persuasion there by African and U.S. leadership, and bringing Angola in line with the AU and UN stance would be an important signal to Gbagbo of exactly how isolated he has become. Gbagbo’s continuing isolation and dwindling financial flow may lead to a revolt by his inner circle or military supporters. This may take time, however, since he reportedly has cocoa and oil revenues on which he can draw. Ultimately, the unfortunate truth is that if Gbagbo is willing to risk a civil war, which will likely be far bloodier than the previous crisis, even the best intentions and most exemplary response from the international community may not be enough to stop it.

Q3: What about a military intervention?

Gbagbo’s intransigence has led to increasing talk of a possible military intervention by ECOWAS or the African Union to forcibly remove him. Such a move seems unlikely at present. African Union troops have little experience in that kind of commando operation. (In March 2008, AU troops removed the incumbent president of the semiautonomous Cormoran island of Anjouan, population 280,000, following a disputed election—a precedent of sorts, but not a very strong one.) Nigeria, which would shoulder much of the heavy lifting in an ECOWAS operation, is preoccupied with its own upcoming elections, and Ghana, also a significant troop contributor, has balked at the idea of military intervention. There is good reason to be skeptical. Even if extracting Gbagbo from the presidential palace is successful, it is difficult to predict the potential reaction not only of the Ivorian military but of the multiple militias throughout the country who remain armed and primed. Gbagbo’s supporters have said that any military intervention would be a “declaration of war.” Leader of the Jeunes Patriotes Blé Goudé, sanctioned by the United Nations for mobilizing attacks on UN peacekeepers in 2006, could very quickly mobilize his supporters to create mayhem in Abidjan. ECOWAS will need to consider whether a forcible removal of Gbagbo may inflame rather than calm the situation.

Peaceful resolution of the standoff will require Gbagbo to quit the scene. He can leave voluntarily, although his opportunities for a soft landing are rapidly evaporating. He can hold on and try to maintain revenue flows enough to keep his most immediate enablers on his side. In this, he will face a remarkably united international coalition intent on cutting those flows and an increasingly uncertain and unreliable internal support structure. Or he can turn to the streets and the more rabid of his supporters to foment increasing levels of vitriol, resentment, and violence against his opponents and the international community, setting the stage for widespread violence. Unfortunately, the future of peace and prosperity in Côte d’Ivoire seems the last thing on Gbagbo’s mind.

Jennifer G. Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions
is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.