By Mark Yarnell – United Nations peacekeepers, with significant support from France, launched strikes against the heavy weaponry of forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo in an effort to protect civilians and prevent further attacks on UN personnel. Gbagbo refused to step down as president after losing a November 2010 election to opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara. Prior to the UN/France military offensive, post-election violence resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of over a million.
During the past four months, the US and the international community enacted a robust series of tools – including sanctions and diplomatic isolation – in an attempt to resolve the electoral dispute and avert conflict. Though Gbagbo’s grip on power was indeed weakened, Cote d’Ivoire’s descent into civil war demonstrates the profound challenge for external actors to prevent conflict before military intervention is required.
Since civil war broke out in 2002, Cote d’Ivoire has been divided between a rebel-held North and a government-controlled South. Following a series of peace agreements, last November’s long awaited elections were meant as a key step toward unifying the country and consolidating peace. The opposite has occurred.
On Dec 3, the Ivoirian Independent Electoral Commission announced that Ouattara won the presidency by vote of 54.1% to 45.9%. The UN certified the results, which were broadly endorsed by the international community – including the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
When Gbagbo refused to step down and hand his governing authority to Ouattara, the international community mobilized to ease Gbagbo from power and resolve the dispute peacefully.
For its part, the US balanced incentives and punitive measures. In the early stages of the dispute, President Obama offered to facilitate Gbagbo’s exile, endorsing the option of him moving to the US or obtaining a job in an international organization. Gbagbo refused Obama’s phone calls and declined to respond to a letter from him and one from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Administration moved to isolate Gbagbo by implementing travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions on Gbagbo, his wife, and close associates. The EU followed suit with its own travel and financial sanctions.
Both the AU and ECOWAS launched a series of mediation attempts to help resolve the dispute. Emissaries such as former South African President Thabo Mbeki and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga led delegations to Abidjan to facilitate a solution. Countries such as Nigeria offered Gbagbo safe exile, while ECOWAS as a whole threatened military intervention if the standoff continued. The United Nations Security Council authorized the expansion of the UNOCI peacekeeping mission from about 9000 to 11000 and secured several new helicopter gunships. Additionally, the UNSC imposed international travel bans and financial sanctions on Gbagbo and several of his associates.
Despite these multilateral and bilateral efforts, however, Gbagbo refused to step down. Most recently, Ouattara and his troops decided that the only tenable option was to remove him by force. Based in the north, they swept through the south, and for the past several days have been engaged in a battle for Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital and Ggabgo’s stronghold. As the fighting intensified and UN peacekeepers themselves became targets of Gbagbo, the UN, supported by France (which had 1500 troops stationed in the country), took an offensive posture in an attempt to resolve the conflict.
Gbagbo is on his last stand and is reportedly negotiating his surrender. Even as the endgame approaches, it is useful to begin to reflect back on whether the situation could have been resolved prior to the recent descent into violence. Over the past four months, the US and the international community did enact a coordinated series of sanctions, isolation tactics, and mediation efforts. These tools, unfortunately, had their limits. This does not discount their potential impact. Rather, the experience of Cote d’Ivoire calls for thoughtful consideration about how these tools could be employed more effectively in future conflict prevention efforts.
Photo Credit: Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Côte d’Ivoire, visits with people injured during a political protest in Abidjan, December 2010 (UNOCI, Photo # 459067 by Basile Zoma).