The United Nations has evacuated its civilian staff from Ivory Coast as clashes between forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and insurgents supporting Alassane Ouattara intensifying in the aftermath of November 2010 elections, for which the UN has recognized Ouattara as the winner, while Gbagbo has refused to accept defeat.
The last five days have seen particularly intense fighting, as Ouattara advances on the capital, Abidjan, and the two sides are engaged in a battle to control the cocoa-growing regions in the country’s west. Some estimates say that more than 1,300 people have been killed in the fighting since November, while another half million have fled their homes, many of them across the border to Liberia. Reports on Sunday night said that Ouattara’s forces were amassing outside Abidjan, preparing for an offensive to take the city.
Analytical Note: While the international community largely came out in favor of Ouattara early on, recognizing him as the winner of November elections, calling on Gbagbo to resign and sanctioning him and freezing his assets, the UN’s position is now less clear. Recently, it accused Ouattara’s forces of massacring civilians in a village in the west where the battle for control over the country’s cocoa assets rages on. Ouattara supporters have in turn blamed the UN for abandoning civilians in the west to massacre by Gbagbo’s forces. Meanwhile, Gbagbo continues to ramp up the rhetoric against what he calls foreign occupation, especially following France’s decision to take over the airport in Abidjan and to boost its military presence in the country. It also appears that Gbagbo is targeting UN facilities in the country. Last week, one UN staff member was killed, and 11 others have been injured. The evacuation comes at a time when the UN was planning to increase its operations there. Gbagbo is believed to maintain control over much of the country still, and taking the city from him will be easier said than done.
As Ouattara’s forces prepare for their Abidjan push, violence will intensify exponentially, and Ouattara is rapidly losing support among those who voted for him as civilians are indiscriminately caught in the cross-fire.
The conflict will also have grave implications for neighboring Liberia, which is only itself recovering from a protracted civil war, and whose impoverished young men are seeking employment as mercenaries to fight in Ivory Coast. As hundreds of thousands of people from Ivory Coast continue to flee across the border, the situation threatens to destabilize Liberia, which cannot accommodate them economically or logistically.
As noted in a previous publication by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs for the Global Intelligence Report, foreign intervention in Ivory Coast has long been strategically illogical. Former colonial powers and the African Union maintain their interest in sustaining Ivory Coast along illogical colonial boundary lines, refusing to consider the break-up of the state despite the drastic communal differences that are impossible to reconcile. The result, that report noted, “has been that ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘conflict resolution’ measures introduced to states by external forces (UN, AU, ECOWAS, etc.) have largely been mechanisms to suppress fighting rather than tools to resolve underlying structural problems.” Ouattara is a northern Muslim, while Gbagbo is a southern Christian, each of them representing massive populations of around 10 million people.
This not a new rivalry, as both have been vying for control of the country for decades. While Ouattara is supported by the French and interested therefore in keeping Ivory Coast under the French sphere of influence, Gbagbo was initially shooting for a US alliance under Bush, though was not met with any significant encouragement. The country has long been polarized and will remain as long as it is forced to maintain a union based on unrealistic colonial borders.
–by Jen Alic, for the Global Intelligence Report, an ISA Intel partner organization.