Monday, February 28, 2011

The Unrest in Côte d'Ivoire, and Why it Matters

Last November, Côte d'Ivoire held its first presidential election in ten years. It was supposed to help unify a country that had suffered through more than a decade of unrest and civil war.

Instead, the election has done just the opposite. The current president, Laurent Gbagbo, nullified the victory – certified by independent international observers – of a longtime prominent opponent, Alassane Ouattara, and has vowed to stay in power by any means necessary, defying calls from the international community to step down. How the international community reacts to this flagrant abuse of power will have an impact throughout West Africa – a region only just beginning to emerge from civil war and political upheaval – and will speak volumes for how a rising Africa ranks as a global international issue in the 21st century.

With President Gbagbo still commanding the loyalty of the military and Mr. Ouattara backed by the rebellious Northern provinces and the leader of the rebel New Forces militia, Gulliame Soro, Côte d'Ivoire is on the brink of renewed civil war. Being one of the wealthier countries in West Africa and one of the largest sources of cocoa and coffee, an unstable Côte d'Ivoire would have negative repercussions throughout Africa and the world.

The situation has been deteriorating rapidly since the results were announced in December. Hundreds have died from clashes between President Gbagbo’s and Mr. Ouattara’s forces and between police and unarmed protestors. Thousands more have fled to neighboring countries, some of which, like Liberia and Sierra Leone, have only just recently emerged from their own civil wars and whose stability remains fragile at best. Moreover, the price of cocoa and other commodities have skyrocketed in light of the current unrest and the potential for future civil war.

Currently, President Gbagbo has the advantage on the ground, with thousands of Ivorian troops confining Mr. Ouattara and his rival government in a small section of Abidijan, the nation's largest city. Only an 1000 man contingent of UN peacekeepers stand in the way of Mr. Ouattara and several hundred of his trapped forces from being overwhelmed.

But despite having his opponent surrounded and outgunned, President Gbagbo’s hold on power is growing increasingly tenuous. The international community has universally recognized Mr. Ouattara as the new president and has strongly condemned President Gbagbo’s heavy-handed actions. The Central Bank of the West African Monetary Union has denied President Gbagbo access to Côte d'Ivoire’s state funds, and the World Bank has frozen $800 million in expected financing, both of which threaten to starve President Gbagbo of enough cash to pay the military and other loyal officials. UN forces refused to leave the country after being ordered to do so by President Gbagbo, and the UN continues to supply and reinforce its contingent protecting Mr. Ouattara’s position in Abidjan. Now, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional economic group with a military arm, is threatening to send an intervention force to remove President Gbagbo from power. Moreover, the New Forces remain at large and is poised to make a move should President Gbagbo escalate the situation further.

The international community likely hopes that, faced with dwindling cash reserves and the possibility of ECOWAS or rebel attack, the Ivorian army will abandon President Gbagbo, which would force him to step down. But this outcome is not so clear-cut. Past ECOWAS interventions in conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere were never a decisive force on the ground. Nor did they bring about a quick victory, but rather got bogged down for years and caused significant collateral damage to property and civilians. Moreover, Nigeria, the most powerful member of ECOWAS, is nearing highly-charged elections of its own, and so may be reluctant to commit wholeheartedly to an intervention force.

An ineffectual ECOWAS intervention would produce a long, drawn-out stalemate at best and, if it doesn’t cause a full-fledged civil war, would exacerbate the divisions within Côte d'Ivoire that led to civil war in the first place.

The causes of Côte d'Ivoire’s troubles are rooted in the tensions between the rich, cocoa-growing, urban, Christian, and coastal southern regions and the poorer, Muslim, more rural, and more foreign northern regions. Throughout the late 1900s, Côte d'Ivoire experienced significant immigration, especially from neighboring West African countries, due to its economic prosperity from cocoa and coffee exports and the political stability imposed by longtime dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The tensions between the “native” Ivorians and the immigrants (especially the Burkinabé from neighboring Burkina Faso) came to a head during the last elections, in 2000, when the very same Mr. Ouattara was barred from running due to suspicions of his nationality. President Gbagbo, following a chaotic disputed election, emerged as president. He did little to alleviate the ethnic tensions, which provoked a mutiny of hundreds of soldiers from the north across the country in 2002, leading to the formation of the New Forces and the beginning of civil war.

Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, such tensions have been stoked again. The situation is further exacerbated by the current economic woes the country is suffering as a result of the standoff, with movement in and out of the country hampered. The greatest fear of ECOWAS countries is for another civil war to break out, as that would mean reduced trade with and more refugees from Côte d'Ivoire. In addition, Liberia and Sierra Leone in particular are worried, rightfully so, that renewed civil war in Côte d'Ivoire could provide a haven for militants seeking to destabilize either country, both of which went through their own civil wars that only ended in the last decade.

For West Africa, then, the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is a looming disaster, but also an opportunity to demonstrate resolve and solidarity on the world stage. West Africa will need real leadership to transcend short-term considerations in order to collectively address a threat that will negatively impact all of the countries in the region. If it is able to make good on its word and send a sizeable, well-funded, and well-equipped ECOWAS force, it will be an impressive, even inspiring, culmination of a decade’s worth of progress in the region: to have gone from being awash in civil wars – with many countries even funding and arming rebels in neighboring countries – to being able to collectively police the region.

For the rest of the world, the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is an issue that must be addressed adequately to show that the international community, when acting collectively, still has the teeth to uphold its interests abroad. But if it wants to ensure success, the international community will have to take an additional sweeping measure: a boycott of Ivorian cocoa and possibly other exports. Taxing exports is how President Gbagbo is getting most of his revenue from at the moment. It would hurt world markets too, but it could prove the decisive blow to President Gbagbo’s finances. Perhaps then the threat of an ECOWAS invasion will be enough to dispel President Gbagbo of his remaining supporters and avert a full-fledged civil war.

Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

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