What to Do About Ivory Coast

The downward spiral in Ivory Coast continues toward civil war or, at best, stalemate. The standoff between long-time ruler Laurent Gbagbo and the internationally supported presidential victor in credible if imperfect elections, Alassane Ouattara, is far from resolved. Both have had themselves sworn in as president. Both also maintain substantial support within their respective constituencies, some of whom are prepared to fight.

A recent general strike designed by the opposition to force Mr. Gbagbo out was widely observed in the north, where Mr. Ouattara derives much of his support, hardly at all in those parts of the country supportive of Mr. Gbagbo, and only sporadically in Abidjan, where Mr. Gbagbo’s thugs, the Young Patriots, are active in the streets.

While the international community and African regional organizations are united in their determination that Mr. Gbagbo must go, outside opinion has only limited relevance inside a fractured Ivory Coast. The fear must be of a resumption of the country’s destructive 2002 civil war that severely damaged the economy; hitherto Francophone West Africa’s most successful.

The international community has recognized Mr. Ouattara as the duly elected president. Regional organizations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have imposed sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo, and have even raised the possibility of military intervention, though interest in that option has receded. The U.S. and French governments have also imposed sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo and his most prominent supporters, and the Central Bank of West Africa has cut off Mr. Gbagbo’s access. The United Nations Security Council extended the U.N. mission and the secretary general has recognized Mr. Ouattara’s nominee as the Ivorian permanent representative to the United Nations.

Unsurprisingly, none of these actions has gotten Mr. Gbagbo to budge. Instead, he has further entrenched himself in the presidential palace. Some of his supporters have begun to threaten foreigners. This raises the specter of ethnic killings or “genocide,” a word some of Mr. Gbagbo’s supporters have used. The expatriate Nigerian business community takes these threats seriously and has urged Abuja to remain “neutral.” Mr. Gbagbo’s Young Patriots are also threatening to attack Mr. Ouattara and his U.N. protectors. There are credible reports of almost 200 dead and many “disappeared,” mostly from the opposition.

Should fighting break out, the U.N peacekeepers stationed in the country would not likely be able to stop it. Their numbers are small, and the force would probably need a new Security Council mandate, which might be difficult to achieve. The 900 French troops in this former colony remain to expedite the departure of some 15,000 French citizens, should it be necessary. It is an open question whether French public opinion would support the active engagement of French forces other than to protect French citizens.

Hence, it is no surprise that Ecowas is refocusing on diplomatic pressure. Three Ecowas heads of state and the Kenyan prime minister were in Abidjan to try to persuade Mr. Gbagbo to leave. They follow earlier Ecowas missions and one undertaken by South Africa’s former head of state Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union. Even the United States has hinted at offering Mr. Gbagbo residency if he quits. Mr. Gbagbo has shown no interest in the “honorable” exile and immunity from prosecution that they have offered.

In the face of his intransigence, there is talk of “power-sharing” between the two presidents. International mediators should be wary of such a proposal. Zimbabwe and Kenya power-sharing arrangements, in effect, enabled defeated incumbent heads of state to hang on to power even though they had lost the election. While in Zimbabwe and Kenya power-sharing ended violence in the short term, it has not resolved the underlying causes. Power-sharing would likely have a similar outcome in the Ivory Coast.

Given these unpleasant realities, the Obama administration has little leverage to get Mr. Gbagbo out quickly. It prudently has reduced the size of the U.S. embassy and is likely planning to facilitate the departure of American citizens if necessary. The administration can and should move to contain the consequences for the region of the crisis and underscore Mr. Gbagbo’s pariah status. For example, it should provide assistance to Liberia and Ivory Coast’s other neighbors to respond to a potential humanitarian disaster caused by refugee flows. According to the United Nations, as many as 20,000 refugees have fled the country since the beginning of the crisis. It should seek to stench any flow of arms into the country. The administration’s spokesmen should continue publicly to recall that Mr. Gbagbo and his minions would be held personally accountable for human rights violations he perpetrates. The administration should provide diplomatic support for Ecowas and the African Union in international forums like the UN Security Council. There should also be international planning for the delivery of humanitarian assistance within Ivory Coast, should widespread fighting start again.

Over time Mr. Gbagbo’s domestic support is likely to erode, a process that will be promoted by his new status as an international pariah and if he is cut off from access to international financial agencies. But, in the meantime, the international community will need to show persistence and patience; Mr. Gbagbo is unlikely to go away soon.

John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author most recently of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.

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