Côte d’Ivoire’s president announced an amnesty program. Is this the end of a ‘victor’s peace’?

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara addresses the nation on television and announces amnesty for around 800 people, including former first lady Simone Gbagbo, who is behind bars, in the name of national reconciliation. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara addresses the nation on television and announces amnesty for around 800 people, including former first lady Simone Gbagbo, who is behind bars, in the name of national reconciliation. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

On the eve of Aug. 7, the anniversary of the independence of Côte d’Ivoire, President Alassane Ouattara announced an amnesty for 800 people detained or condemned for crimes against state security. Most, including former first lady Simone Gbagbo, are former state officials or political militants accused of acts related to the internal conflict that ended in 2011.

Is Ouattara’s decision a step toward reconciliation? The move follows the publication of a leaked E.U. report that contains severe criticism of the Ivorian government. But it also stems from the domestic challenges that the outcome of the 2011 conflict created.

The roots of the country’s division run deep

The Ivorian crisis started with the armed rebellion of the Forces Nouvelles (FN) in 2002. Despite many efforts to negotiate an end of the conflict, violence relapsed when President Laurent Gbagbo tried to manipulate the results of the 2010 elections.

With the support of the FN and international peacekeepers, Ouattara — who won the election — managed to defeat pro-Gbagbo loyalists. In April 2011, Laurent and Simone Gbagbo were arrested. The ousted president was subsequently extradited to the International Criminal Court, where he is on trial.

Ivory Coast’s conflict ended with the victory of pro-Ouattara forces. The fate of the pro-Gbagbo militants arrested or prosecuted by national authorities for their role in the 2010-2011 post-election crisis has been largely unresolved. Pro-Ouattara commanders suspected of war crimes were never targeted for prosecution. This produced accusations of uneven justice. So why have political prisoners now been granted amnesty?

When victory produces peace — and when it does not

In my research, I explore the implication of military victory for peace-building in Côte d’Ivoire and other countries. While some commentators tend to portray peace after military victory as a quasi-automatic outcome, or as the exclusive product of violence and repression, I argue that the reality is more complex. To understand the problem of peace after military victory, it is necessary to understand the challenges that victors face.

Military victory has been historically the main way civil wars end. The end of the Cold War has seen the rise of an implicit international norm, prescribing peace negotiations as a way to end internal conflicts.

There are now signs of a quite different trend, however. The rise of the “war on terror” has pushed Western states to refuse negotiations with “terrorists.” United Nations peacekeeping missions are increasingly asked to help stabilize countries by fighting recalcitrant armed groups rather than support negotiated pacts. And, as a research report commissioned by the British Foreign Office Stabilization Unit acknowledges, peace agreements often fail to secure peace or end up entrenching dysfunctional governance.

But can military victory deliver better outcomes?

When negotiations stretch for years and produce repeatedly ignored peace agreements — like the case of Côte d’Ivoire — it is tempting to think so. And, indeed, statistical analysis suggests that conflicts tend to recur less frequently after a decisive military outcome.

Some scholars see military victory, especially rebel victory, as a way to break with the past and consolidate state institutions. However, statistics also reveal that military victory is more often accompanied by post-conflict, one-sided violence, in comparison with negotiated settlements. And some military victories fail to achieve basic stability, as the situation in Libya and the Central African Republic illustrates.

Why is this the case? I argue that victors need to make a sustained effort to translate a military victory into a strategic victory. But they face three main challenges: maintaining cohesion among the actors who won the war, dealing with the vanquished and implementing the victor’s vision of post-conflict governance.

Most conflicts that resume after a military victory are conflicts between former allies, in fact. In contrast, former foes rarely have the material and organizational capacity to start a new fight. They can, however, undermine the legitimacy of the victor in more subtle ways. For instance, former supporters of President Gbagbo have kept alive a counternarrative of the conflict in which the former president is seen as an anti-colonialist hero unjustly persecuted.

The need to appease allies with political and material rewards might prevent victors from building a more inclusive peace. Compromises to maintain unity may keep victors with transformative goals from translating these visions into reality. In Africa, rebel groups that were most successful in transforming the state had a history of cohesion and discipline that helped them to overcome the risk of fragmentation.

Wartime alliances then collapsed in Côte d’Ivoire

Until recently, the Ivorian government has been quite successful in overcoming these challenges. Threats from pro-Gbagbo supporters were deflated, and the wartime alliance that brought Ouattara to power survived at least long enough for the president to be reelected in 2015.

With the 2020 presidential election approaching along with Ouattara’s probable retirement, Ivory Coast is at a critical juncture. Former allies — Ouattara’s party, Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR), its former coalition partner Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and FN leader Guillaume Soro — are competing to succeed Ouattara. These actors are trying to appeal to Gbagbo’s former electorate — and this helps explain Ouattara’s amnesty announcement.

The gradual breakdown of the government alliance has contributed to a relapse of instability. In 2017, Côte d’Ivoire was shaken by army mutinies. A close associate of FN leader Soro, who is now benefiting from the amnesty, was arrested on suspicion of providing weapons to mutineers.

But by opening the political space, the current situation could also have a positive impact for the country’s democracy. Ouattara’s decision appears to stem from a longer-term concern for his legacy as president and from a desire to overcome some of the divisions stemming from the “victor’s peace” of 2011.

Giulia Piccolino is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Loughborough University in Britain. Her open-access publications can be found on the University Open Repository.

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