Ivory Coast: the agonies of reconcilation

Continued fighting and looting in Ivory Coast have marred President Alassane Ouattara‘s first two weeks in office. The four month post-electoral standoff came to an end when pro-Ouattara forces captured the outgoing president, Laurent Gbagbo, but fighting has been slow to end in the capital, Abidjan. This was demonstrated by the recent killing of the high-profile militia leader Ibrahim “IB” Coulibaly and the discovery of mass graves in the neighbourhood of Yopougon. Last weekend, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson travelled to Abidjan to encourage national reconciliation. A truth and reconciliation commission has been established after the South African model and will be led by the the ex-prime minister, Charles Konan Banny.

Genuine reconciliation implies a common story of events. Yet in Ivory Coast today there is a profound divergence in the understanding of the issues at the heart of the post-electoral crisis. Indeed, the elections have exacerbated some of the very conflicts they were supposed to end. While some view the post-electoral crisis as focused on Gbagbo’s attempt to illegitimately cling on to power despite losing the election, others see the central issue as French neocolonial aggression that aims to install Ouattara as a puppet.

Ouattara has been internationally recognised as having won the elections of 28 November 2010, yet this view has not been unanimously accepted in Ivory Coast and it has given rise to two very different readings of the crisis.

On 4 April helicopters of the UN Mission in Ivory Coast and the French Operation Licorne forces fired on military installations of the Gbagbo government. According to the UN, this was done in order to protect the civilian population. During further attacks on heavy weapons belonging to the Gbagbo regime, the presidential palace was heavily damaged, and on 11 April pro-Ouattara forces stormed the building and captured Gbagbo and members of his family. Supporters of Ouattara cheered Gbagbo’s arrest, rejoicing at the capture of, according to them, a man illegitimately hanging on to power.

Many of Gbagbo’s supporters (he obtained 46% of the votes in the November 2010 election) see things quite differently: they claim that the election was rigged in favour of Ouattara by the former rebels who control the north, and that Ouattara first tried to come to power by fermenting a rebellion and, when this failed, by rigging the elections.

According to this reading of the crisis, Ouattara lost the elections, and has since refused a recount of the ballot. Instead, he called on rebels and the former colonial power France to launch an assault on the main city of Abidjan. Ouattara has denied links to the rebellion, but there are familiar faces among those backing him: the prime minister, Guillaume Soro, Issiaka “Wattao” Ouattara, Ibrahim and Ousmane Coulibaly, and Martin Kouakou Fofié were all part of the New Forces rebellion that attempted a coup against Gbagbo in 2002, and have since taken control of the northern half of the country.

While French forces say they were not directly involved in the arrest of Gbagbo, the Licorne/UN air strikes laid the groundwork by destroying much of the heavy weaponry of the Gbagbo regime. The fact that these airstrikes have taken place during the battle for Abidjan and have shifted the balance in power in favour of the pro-Ouattara fighters has given rise to the view among the Gbagbo-supporting population that this was a political intervention, rather than a humanitarian one.

According to one interpretation, the intervention was about peacekeepers protecting the civilian population and re-establishing democracy. To others, it was about France using its military weight to help resolve an electoral dispute in its favour by installing Ouattara as a president who will serve French interests. For reconciliation to be meaningful, and for Ivory Coast to exit the spiral of political instability and increasing violence, the divergences in the reading of the key issues in the crisis need to be taken into account.

Indeed, these radically different understandings point not to citizens supporting alternative political programmes, but to different conceptions of the state, different accounts of national history, and different visions of national sovereignty.

By Dr Anne Schumann, a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies who specialises in Ivorian political culture.

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