Some 100,000 people have fled Cote d’Ivoire and nearly one million are displaced amid post-election violence and fears of an all-out civil war. USIP’s Dorina Bekoe examines what sparked this current crisis and possible ways to address the country’s deep-rooted problems.

March 29, 2011

Some 100,000 people have fled Cote d’Ivoire and nearly one million are displaced amid post-election violence and fears of an all-out civil war. USIP’s Dorina Bekoe examines what sparked this current crisis and possible ways to address the country’s deep-rooted problems.

What prompted this current instability?

The present instability in Côte d’Ivoire was caused by a dispute over the results of the run-off presidential elections on November 28, 2010. The United Nations and the Ivorian independent electoral commission both proclaimed that Alassane Ouattara, challenger to President Laurent Gbagbo, had won the elections. However, the constitutional council proclaimed that Gbagbo had won, instead. Both men then were sworn in as president and appointed members to their cabinets. The larger international and regional communities also recognized Ouattara as the winner of the presidential elections and implored Gbagbo to step down.

In the immediate period following the election, Gbagbo’s supporters clashed violently with Ouattara’s supporters, who demonstrated on behalf of their candidate. In one protest, 30 people were killed in Abidjan. However, in the last few weeks, there are increasing signs that Côte d’Ivoire is sliding back into civil war. Clashes between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara have escalated. Thousands of Gbagbo supporters heeded the call last week to join the armed services in support of Gbagbo. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the number of fatalities since the November run-off is now approaching 500. UNHCR estimates between 700,000 and one million Ivoirians have been displaced in Abidjan alone. More than 100,000 Ivoirians have fled to neighboring Liberia.

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What is being done to contain it?

The international community responded in the first few weeks following the electoral crisis by quickly by imposing travel sanctions on Gbagbo, his wife, and their close associates. In January 2011, trade and financial sanctions were also imposed, resulting in an embargo of the export of cocoa beans from Côte d’Ivoire and on access to funds by Gbagbo and his associates. While this succeeded somewhat in hurting Gbagbo and his associates, by February, Ivorian cocoa farmers also started to suffer as they were deprived of the livelihoods. In the ensuing financial crisis, nearly all the major banks in Côte d’Ivoire have closed, depriving ordinary people of money and access to market goods.

Envoys sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to negotiate an exit for Gbagbo began arriving in Côte d’Ivoire in December. When diplomatic efforts began to fail, ECOWAS threatened to force Gbagbo from power with military force. Envoys from the African Union (AU) also began meetings with Gbagbo and Ouattara in January 2011. So far, both the AU and ECOWAS have failed in their diplomatic efforts to convince Gbagbo to step down. During their March 11 meeting, the African Union proposed the formation of a unity government with Ouattara at the helm, but this was rejected by Gbagbo. Forging ahead, the AU appointed Jose Brito, former foreign minister of Cape Verde, as the mediator. But the AU’s appointment has been rejected by Ouattra, citing Brito’s close ties to the Gbagbo regime. Moreover, Ouattara lamented that he was not consulted over Brito’s appointment.

ECOWAS’ threat of military intervention has since been withdrawn, but it joins many who have criticized that the United Nations has not responded in a sufficiently robust way to the crisis. As such, following its March 23-24 meeting in Abuja, ECOWAS’ communiqué appealed to the U.N. Security Council to expand the mandate of the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire to all “[the use of] all necessary means to protect life and property, and to facilitate the immediate transfer of power to Mr. Alassane Ouattara.” ECOWAS also requested that the UN Security Council strengthen the sanctions against Gbagbo.

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What are some long term solutions to this crisis?

Any immediate solution to the crisis must recognize that Ouattara is the winner of the election; avoid the slide into civil war; and recognize that the election revealed a nearly evenly split electorate – thus depriving either candidate of a mandate. In this regard, the following approaches may be considered in the near term:

  1. Appoint a mutually acceptable and respected mediator to resolve the crisis: this will be a key factor in ensuring that the mediator has sufficient leverage to force both sides to compromise.
  2. Clearly establish the members of a unity government: outlining the members of the unity government – in particular, securing the members from Gbagbo’s side – may help concretize the way forward.
  3. Strengthen Opération des Nations Unies en Côte d'Ivoire’s mandate and increase the number of troops to allow it to respond to humanitarian crises.
  4. Prosecute the financial institutions and corporations that are providing Gbagbo with the funds to continue to pay the military.

In the medium to long term, political and civic leaders in Côte d’Ivoire should focus on the need for social reconciliation, as the violence increasingly takes on regional and religious dimensions; depoliticize the security forces; and ensure the disarmament of militias to avoid a return to civil war. More broadly, the challenge at the continental level will be to impose meaningful sanctions for the use of violence in electoral disputes.

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