When French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that outgoing Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was in negotiations to surrender, he hailed the resolution of the crisis as a success by the international community. "Today, France can be proud to have participated in the defense and expression of democracy in the Ivory Coast," he said, proclaiming the last four months of international engagement a wild success.
But at the end of a very long day, following massacres in the West of the country and a days-long siege on Abidjan, it's hard to see how anyone can be proud of how this has unfolded. A contested election degenerated into a four-month electoral stand-off that has left at least 1,500 people dead, has caused about 200,000 refugees over the borders, and displaced another several hundred thousand within the Ivory Coast.
This is not a shining example of how to negotiate a solution to conflict. It's a case in which everything went very, very wrong. And it's a visceral example of how one, very stubborn man, can ruin a nation.
From day one, this crisis looked messy. After an election that was postponed countless times for half a decade, the voting finally took place in November -- and it was clean. But the Gbagbo government resisted releasing the results. When it became clear that the opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won the vote, Gbagbo tried to fudge, disqualifying votes until his total polling was higher. When that didn't work -- after all, the United Nations, African Union, and every Western country had already recognized Ouattara -- he just did what any power-grabbing president would: He took the oath of office and stayed put.
At first, the African Union, and particularly the West African economic bloc ECOWAS, made loud noises about unseating Gbagbo, arguing that they were even ready to use military intervention if necessary. But when it became clear that this was just talk -- Nigeria, the heavyweight that would have had to back such action, is about to have (potentially flawed) elections of its own -- Gbagbo's confidence only grew. The world tried economic sanctions; Gbagbo got around them. It tried sending envoys; Gbagbo refused them. It even tried offering Gbagbo a "dignified exit," probably in a country of his choosing at that point.
That the crisis dragged on so long was precisely the reason it became so bad. The Ivory Coast's economy shut down; the country defaulted on its debt in January. Investors grew anxious, and time seemed to stop. But most devastatingly, throughout those weeks, both Gbagbo- and Ouattara-loyal troops were preparing for a military solution. For Gbagbo forces, much of that meant actively thwarting the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country. For Ouattara, that meant weeks of planning an offensive march toward the commercial capital to unseat Gbagbo personally.
On the streets of Abidjan, we now have a visceral picture of what both sides were preparing for. After a weekend of fighting, Ouattara-loyal troops had taken most of the city, save for the presidential palace area, where Gbagbo is holed up. His resistance was strong enough that the United Nations' peacekeeping mission, with the help of France, went on the offensive. After a day during which the United Nations warned citizens of the city not to go outside, Gbagbo finally looks interested in thinking about stepping down.
But let's name the things that have gone wrong: Negotiations failed; economic sanctions failed; the U.N. peacekeeping mission was thwarted, though it later regained initaitive. A military siege has not yet succeeded and regardless comes at a high cost. The French have gotten involved militarily, which was surely the last thing they wanted to do in a former colony where resentment toward their influence runs incredibly high. The humanitarian situation is as precarious as it has been in the last decade.
Now is no time to celebrate. If and when this political stand-off ends, the Ivory Coast is going to be broken.
It's incredible to reflect on what that means: that one man, Laurent Gbagbo, could push a country to the brink of self destruction, costing thousands of lives, billions of lost economic dollars, and an uncountable toll of human suffering. The world didn't fail to end this crisis for want of trying; it failed because there were no good answers. It's particularly striking given how many things were working in favor of this being resolved. The country already had a 11,000-strong peacekeeping mission. There was from the beginning been international consensus about the outcome of the elections.
If we can be proud of how the Ivory Coast turns out, it will only be in one way: As a cautionary tale for the strongman who decides to stick around. This -- Ivory Coast today -- is what you will do to your country.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
At 3 .a.m on March 30, policemen entered the home of blogger Mohammed Al-Maskati, who had been covering recent events in Bahrain by Twitter (@emoodz) and video. The men were wearing masks, and didnt show ID; they didn't say where -- or for how long -- they were detaining al-Maskati. Six days later, no one knows where he is.
I contacted one of al-Maskati's family members -- whose name we cannot use to protect the person's safety -- to ask a bit more about what happened. Below follows an account based on our conversation.
Al-Maskati, a dealer at a retail bank, started blogging and tweeting long before the recent unrest began. Once protests began in Bahrain, he would often go to Lulu roundabout to observe and capture the protests on video. "He's not a part of any political societies -- no political affiliation. He's not even that religious -- secular views," the family member told me. Al-Maskati had 5,500 Twitter followers.
Prior to his arrest, al-Maskati even began tweeting in support of the royal family's attempts at mediation. Many of his tweets included the hashtag #WeWantCP -- a show of support for the initiative of national dialogue initiated by the Crown Prince (CP). "A group of Bahraini youth were trying to push the situation back to the dialogue table, so they created the hashtag," I was told. Al-Maskati had recieved threats over twitter from accounts presumed to be supportive of the government. "One said something like: I know you and I know where you live, and I swear if you don't stop I will have your family searching for you," the family member recounted.
Then, on March 30, one of al-Maskati's friends and fellow bloggers, Mahmood al-Yousif,was detained. "It has been 19 hours since the arrest of @mahmood, in a phonecall to his family he said he'll be kept for the day as a 'guest..'"al-Maskati tweeted that day.
When the police burst in for al-Maskati, they didn't say a thing about what he had done or where he was going. There was no warrant shown. The took laptops, a camera, and CDs.
The following day in the evening, he called: "He called and said he was fine. I asked again are u sure u are fine? He said yes and worry, they will let me out "later." I don't know what later means. I asked, where are you? He said, I don't know."
"I was very hopeful but now that its been 6 days ... that hope is evaporating"
His family member expressed fear and frustration that they have been unable to speak and advocate on behalf of al-Maskati.
"I don't understand why he of all people is arrested. He's moderate man, passive role in the events, mainly just observing and tweeting, source of news. Not hardliner, no affliations. He only wanted a better Bahrain. ...I'd say if hardliners got us to a bad situation, then certainly moderate voice should be encouraged rather than punished."
Asked whether al-Maskati's call for dialogue was finding any resonance, the family member replied, "I think the government official statement says they are "committed to dialogue" but the "restoration of security and stability" is the priority now."
War has returned to the Ivory Coast in the shape of massacres, mercenaries, a besieged capital, and a humanitarian nightmare. Over the last week, a political deadlock that was by all accounts frozen has become a heated contest on the battlefield. Make no mistake: This was the worst-case scenario mapped out for the Ivory Coast back in November when this crisis began.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the city of Duékoué, a key town in the West of the country close to the Liberian border. Forces loyal to the president elect, Alassane Ouattara, took the city last week. But over the weekend it became clear that the fighting took an incredible toll. The International Committee of the Red Cross announced last Friday that an estimated 800 had died; then Caritas put the number at 1,000. Reporting from Duékoué, the BBC's Andrew Harding-- the only English-speaking reporter there as far as I can tell -- writes that he counted 20 corpses in just one city block, children among them. Ouattara's forces, who put the figure much lower, claim that the killings were the result of community militias fighting one another in the wake of power changing hands. The administration blamed the U.N. peacekeepers for being absent and allowing the mess to unfold.
Meanwhile in the capital, the Republic Guard elite forces loyal to the outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo are fiercely deterring an attempt by Ouattara's forces to storm the presidential palace, where it's thought that Gbagbo is holed up. Shots were heard throughout the weekend, though the exact situation is quite unclear. Reports are filtering out through social media that Gbagbo has been using human shields to block bridges around the palace. In one alarming development this morning, a leading Gbagbo general who had previously sought refuge in the South African embassy as a defector has now returned to the battlefield to fight on behalf of the outgoing president.
And in an ominous move reminiscent of Rwanda, and more recently, Libya, French citizens are being gathered for evacuation, as the French army has taken over the aiport. There's clearly a calculation being made that things are going to get worse.
Even if the fighting doesn't continue to escalate, Abidjan under siege is edging toward a humanitarian crisis. Residents of Abidjan today warned that they were running out of phone credit. Water has been cut off to parts of the city, so young women and children are often visible on the streets, scurrying with buckets to fill.
How did we end up here? After months of warnings that this country was on the brink of civil war, it has now been allowed to fall from the precipice. And it looks as if the world is fresh out of ideas about what to do. Economic sanctions failed to squeeze Gbagbo into retirement; so did enticements and final offers for amnesty. Everyone -- Washington, Brussels, Paris, the U.N. -- is calling for the protection of civilians. Clearly that's not enough. Paul Collier had an interesting idea a while back to force defections within the army around Gbagbo, but that seems a bit late now.
So here's what's probably going to happen: Ouattara's forces, which are arguably the legitimate army in this country, will likely be allowed to fight on until Gbagbo is eventually ousted. Everyone will yell and scream that civilians should be protected in the meantime. But everyone knows that this crisis doesn't end until Gbagbo goes, and again, we're fresh out of other options.
I'm not convinced that it even ends then -- after Gbagbo is forced out one way or another. Remember, this election was contested on a relatively close vote, and Gbagbo does retain support from a fair slice of the population. As much as Ouattara has talked about being the president for all Ivorians, the story on the ground is looking more complicated. This is about more than two men's egos at this point. It's about a country, back in civil war. And if we'd like to prevent a protracted armed conflict, maybe it's time to start plotting out options if it comes to that.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
The sound of heavy gunfire is thick in the air in Abidjan this morning; the situation is opaque. Correspondents on the ground for french radio RFI admit on air that they simply can't confirm much about what's going on amid the chaos. The streets are chillingly empty save for combattants. Rumors circulate about where the fighting is, where it's going, and who's in charge.
But what's clear is that the end game between political rivals Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, both of whom claim to have won last November's presidential election (Ouattara actually did), is every bit as bloody and brutal as feared. After months of talking, this question is being answers with guns.
And to be clear: that's guns on all sides.
There's been a tendency -- an understandable one -- to single out Gbagbo for the atrocities that his troops have committed. As the obsinate one in this political crisis, it's Gbagob who is under sanction by the West and who the African Union is calling upon to step down. It's Gbagbo whose forces fired upon and killed protestors, vividly captured on YouTube. It's Gbagbo's men who have refused to let the U.N. peacekeepers patrol Abidjan. It's Gbagbo who gave weapons to civilians in Abidjan and asked them to defend him. And so naturally, it's Gbagbo who most people expect to end up in the International Criminal Court, paying for his crimes. That's what Ouattara's troop are banking on; they have been ordered to guard his "physical integrity" should he be caught for precisely that reason.
But it's important not to forget that Ouattara-loyal forces are also fighting. And on the battlefield, there's always a risk that atrocities could be committed. Reuters reports that Ouattara-loyal forces have remained disciplined so far, though they have executed some Gbagbo militiamen, according to Human Rights Watch. And yesterday, the United Nations called on Ouattara to "rein in" his forces as they take final control in Abidjan. When I was in Liberia earlier this months, officials in the peacekeeping mission there were adamant that refugees fleeing into that country were of all political persuasions -- meaning that Gbagbo supporting civilians feared for their lives under pro-Ouattara forces, just as the opposite was also true.
The fog of war clouds everything for the moment; it's impossible to tell who is responsible for what -- and against whom. But it's important to look at all sides of the fighting, because when the dust settles, Cote d'Ivoire is going to be torn apart. Civilians of all political persuasions are going to have horror stories to tell. And if only half the perpetrators are selectively brought to justice, it will be no justice at all; a society divided cannot be stable for long.
JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images
After months of moving in slow motion, the crisis in the Ivory Coast is today moving at a breakneck pace. In the last several hours, forces loyal to that country's election winner, Alassane Ouattara, have advanced into Abidjan from the interior of the country. With active fighting ongoing, massive military and police defections to the Ouattara forces, and French troops deployed in the streets to "prevent looting," Ouattara's administration has given outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo until 7 p.m. Ivory Coast time (about 50 minutes before this post went up) to step down. France, the United States, and the United Nations are all calling on Gbagbo to do the same, lest a bloodbath ensue.
There's a real chance of that, despite how weakened Gbagbo's forces clearly are. Amnesty International is warning of a "humanitarian catastophe." The United Nations' peacekeeping force on the ground was worried enough about a security vacuum that it took control of the airport and airspace just moments ago. And in addition to the immediate term fighting, what I'm worried about in the longterm is outside of Abidjan, where there are now numerous reports that ex-combattants from neighboring Liberia are fighting on no one's side, raping and pillaging without regard to the political situation that all diplomatic efforts have gone toward fixing.
All this is happening so quickly that even Twitter is looking dated; tweets are outpaced by events even as they're instantaneously posted. But to keep up with events on the ground, I would recommend the following resources:
- Slateafrique's liveblog
- Abidjan.net, a local news source that also pulls from the wires
- Reuters' page on the Ivory Coast
Or follow me on twitter @DickinsonBeth and I'll try to do my best to keep up with the news as it's unfolding.
JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images
As the situation in the Ivory Coast rapidly deteriorates, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla. - R) has written to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for new elections in the Ivory Coast, a signal of support for outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo who has refused to step down from office after losing an internationally certified presidential ballot in November.
Inhofe's position starkly contradicts the administration's policy on the Ivory Coast, where Gbagbo has been widely accused of targeting civilians and opposition supporters during the four month stand-off. U.S., European, U.N., and African Union policy has called for the outgoing president to step down immediately. Today, the U.N. Security Council slapped tough sanctions on his regime, adding to existing American, European, and African sanctions already in place.
So how did an Oklahoma senator come to support a man that most see as an obstacle to peace in the Ivory Coast?
When I spoke to Sen. Inhofe by phone today, he told me that he had known Gbagbo for years. "We have a lot of friends in common." I asked him if he had been able to communicate with Gbagbo since the November election, to which he replied: "I have been able to, but I have not."
Inhofe first wrote to the State Department to contest the Ivorian elections on February 9, when he says that he provided documented evidence that the vote had been flawed.
Then, earlier this week, a former member of Gbagbo's outgoing government, Mel Eg Theodore, visited Inhofe to discuss the political stand off in the Ivory Coast. Theodore told me this afternoon by phone that he arrived in Washington from Abidjan just two days ago to meet with U.S. officials about the country's political stand off. He said he "didn't have chance" to meet with the State Department, but he claimed that evidence of the fraud -- including voting records -- was sent to Foggy Bottom months ago.
"We have received things from those purporting to be from Gbagbo," a state department official told me today. "And we have seen some things that have clearly been manufactured. We know that the U.N. [which certified the election results] has maintained copies of all of the voting records as well.
"We share his concern for the violence on the ground, but we remain clear that Gbagbo must step down."
In his letter to Clinton, Inhofe claims to have spoken with Ivorian officials. He also told me he had conferred with five "sub-Saharan African" heads of government "who are very close to this issue and who agree [the election] was stolen, no question about that." The heads of state, he said, had chosen not to make their allegations publicly in hopes of preventing more bloodshed.
Inhofe writes that he also wants to prevent further bloodshed on the ground in calling for new elections, though a switch in U.S. policy at this stage would likely prolong the political deadlock.
Theodore denied that the Gbagbo government had been involved in committing atrocities against the Ivorian people. "Always it is lies and lies and more lies," he told me.
"Right now there is no fighting in the streets. Abidjan is more than quiet, it is even ghost city."
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Wires are reporting this morning that the ex-rebel forces who back president-elect Alassane Ouattara in the Ivory Coast are close to recapturing the country's capital, Yamoussoukro, from outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo this morning -- a win that would pave the way for the forces' march to Abidjan, just 143 kilometers away.
The good news is that military pressure seems to have made its point upon Gbagbo, who offered a ceasefire and urged mediation today. That marks the first time in the four month long crisis that Gbagbo has shown any interest in negotiations.
But the bad news is that, by now, Ouattara's men are no longer interested in talking. They want to take the country by force -- probably right to the very heart of the country in Abidjan, where both presidents, Gbagbo and Ouattara, are hold up. If it comes to that, it would undoubtedly be a bloody battle.
In the meantime, Gbagbo and Ouattara are both waging a propoganda and PR campaign simultaneous to hard military action. Reporters Without Borders today reports that Gbagbo has shut down opposition web sites; text message services have been shut down for week. Ouattara's spokesmen have been on international radio -- particularly the BBC -- denouncing Gbagbo's atrocities and his unwillingness to step down.
Bottom line: Now would be a really great time for the African Union to get a serious mediator into Abidjan.
ZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images
Not 30 minutes after Barack Obama had finished speaking last night, the pundits on CNN, the Tweetosphere, and the blogosphere, were abuzz with talk of a new "Obama doctrine" defined by the notion that the United States -- unlike some countries in the world -- cannot sit back and watch mass slaughters unfold. Most pulled out this paragraph of the address as a rough definition:
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.
This rings eerily familiar to those familiar with the "Responsibility to Protect" -- an idea that rose from the fires of the Rwandan genocide as well as the bloody civils wars of the 1990s and early 2000s -- Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to name a few. Affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, R2P (as it is known to its proponents) stipulates that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians when a country's government fails to do so -- or even threatens those very lives itself.
If you've been following my blogging of the Ivory Coast at all in recent weeks, you might think you know what I'm going to say next: If Libya, why not the Ivory Coast? I wouldn't be the only person to raise the comparison. Mark Leon Goldberg at U.N. Dispatch discussed it today on his blog.
But in fact, I think those who define the Obama doctrine as a rough equivalent of R2P missed the most important caveats of the speech -- which are, in many ways, its crux:
America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.
Why Libya and not the Ivory Coast? Because in Libya, we had the ability, the opportunity, and the interests -- a critical triumverate that made it both logistically feasible and politically palatable to intervene. In the Ivory Coast, almost none of these things are true. This is not a case in which our urge to "do something" is matched by a clear answer for what "something" is.
First, there is no clear tactical way to break the deadlock there; what we have seen unfold in recent weeks shows every indication of civil war, and nothing short of a ground intervention would be likely to stop it militarily. We're not talking about one agressor -- there are armed forces on both sides of this political deadlock that are actively fighting.
The opportunity is not there either; unlike in Libya, in the Ivory Coast, the regional body, the African Union, is far more reluctant to see Western forces bear down. Instead, they've asked for a boosted mandate for U.N. peacekeepers on the ground -- many of whom are Nigerian.
Finally, is it politically palatable? Much as it hurts me to say this: No. A 13 percent increase in the price of cocoa is not going to get Defense Secretary Robert Gates' Meet the Press threshold for vital interests. It's just not.
So where does this leave us on the Ivory Coast? It means we have to start being a lot more creative, knowing that no one is going to fly in over the skies of Abidjan and protect civilians. That means we have to use the less-blunt tools in our toolbox: political engagement, financial sanctions and pressure, regional advocacy, humanitarian aid. If the U.N. Security Council can bump up the mandate of the peacekeepers on the ground -- and send in the equipment and logistics they need -- that would go a long way. If the African Union and the regional block, ECOWAS, can muster more pressure and less accomodation on outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo, that would be great too.
This is not a do-nothing approach. It is a realistic one. U.S. diplomats are engaged on this issue; those I've spoken to are as alarmed and as preoccupied as you would expect them to be by a situation that looks more grave by the hour. But if we are waiting for the White House to fix this problem, we'll be waiting a long time.
I'm grateful for the attention that Libya has garnered for the Ivory Coast -- maybe it wouldn't have even made page 3 without it. But the Ivory Coast doesn't meet the criteria of the Obama doctrine as layed out by the president. So it's time for some hard thinking about better -- and more -- options. Becuase as I've written again and again, on its current trajectory, this thing gets much worse before it gets better.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
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