For the last several months, the Ivory Coast has been crawling back to civil war. Now, both sides are actively bulking up their forces in what looks like an alarming calculation that this country's crisis will get worse before it gets better. The Ivory Coast has been divided between a rebel-controlled north and a government-controlled south for the last decade. The fragile detante that restored peace in 2005 is shattering. Thousands upon thousands are fleeing the capital today in fear of exactly that.
In the southern city and capital of Abidjan, "thousands" of youth have joined the army, heeding a call from outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo, the man who lost November's presidential election. The drive has been led by Gbagbo's notoriously militant youth minister, Blé Goudé, who is under U.N. sanctions for violating the country's peace agreement and impeding the U.N. peacekeeping missionin the country. He told Reuters, "Our country is under attack, so we're organising ourselves to re-establish order ... The legal way to do it is to put them in the regular army."
Meanwhile in the country's rebel-controlled north, forces loyal to election winner Alassane Ouattara told the BBC that they are waiting for orders to march on the capital, unseating Gbagbo. Clashes are already ongoing in the countryside, where the two forces are trading territory.
As I've reported before, the region is scared. Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters today, "We are already at war." The crisis has already sent about 100,000 refugees fleeing the Ivory Coast into Liberia.
Interestingly, the most recent refugee status report from the U.N. Refugee Agency notes that more than 50,000 of those refugees are under the age of 18. Many are surely young children -- but many more are adolescents, afraid of being recruited by one side or another.
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Around the time that Barack Obama was assuring U.S. lawmakers that American planes would not be used to enforce the no fly zone in Libya, our neighbor to the north was announcing just the opposite: Canada will deploy fighter jets to the Middle East. Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to the joint African Union-Arab League summit on Libya tomorrow, where he'll join other Western leaders from France, Britain, Germany, and the United States in discussing next steps.
This is the perfect international swarming -- nearly every major NATO country is now militarily involved, except the United States. And that's probably intentional -- a means to quell fears -- both in Congress and in the U.S. public -- that Libya could turn out to be yet another expensive and prolonged military adventure in the Middle East, adding to the burdens of Iraq and Afghanistan.
So enter Canada, a country with a long and storied history of supporting U.N. peace operations. This is one time when America is probably ok with its northern neighbor taking the lead.
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Believe me, I know: You have no bandwidth for the Ivory Coast today. But that may be exactly why the situation in this West African country -- far from the geopolitics of Libya and the human tragedy of Japan -- is going south so quickly. It looks increasingly like outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo has made a calculation that the world just doesn't have enough free hands to stop him if he pushes the country back into war.
Once upon a time, the world was supposed to intervene -- militarily if necessary -- to ensure democratic transition and prevent conflict in the Ivory Coast. These days, the momentum is gone. And in fact, the closer this country comes to civil war, the less interested anyone is at getting involved. I get it; geopolitically, the Ivory Coast doesn't hold a candle to the Middle East. But how about all of West Africa -- all of which is threatened by the current conflict?
This is the real thing. In a message on state television last night, Gbagbo -- who has refused to step down after losing an internationally certified election in November -- asked civilians to get involved in the fight to "neutralize" his opponents. That's about as close as you get to saying pick up your machetes and join me. Or forget machetes; Ivory Coast is still heavily armed from its civil war last decade. Gbagbo certainly hasn't been shy about using military force lately; his forces are thought to have been behind a mortar attack on a market yesterday that left 40 people injured. Earlier this week there were reports of his using helicopters and tanks to mow down suspected opposition supporters.
The optimist watching this situation might argue that Gbagbo is turning to military force because he is running out of other options -- or more specifically, he's running out of cash. He's trying to play every card he can before folding his hand.
That's not my read of Gbagbo, however. This is a man who doesn't know how to fold. Nor do his opponents, for that matter. Opposition supporters of the president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, have the moral high ground for backing the democratic process. But the formal rebel troops who remain loyal Ouattara are already involved in fighting in rural Ivory Coast, where they are taking territory from government troops.
The more the conflict escalates, the fewer consequences there are -- for Gbagbo and for any rebel forces who also perpetrate atrocities. France today says it wants more sanctions. But that's kid stuff.
Speaking about Libya's conflict this afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the words of the international community would "ring hollow" if we didn't intervene to protect civilians in Libya. These are promises we've made before.
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MONROVIA, Liberia — Less than an hour's flight away from the Ivory's Coast's capital of Abidjan, fears are growing that what started as a national Ivorian crisis could quickly infect the entire West African region.
Since outgoing Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo first refused to step down from office late last year, tension has consistently ratcheted up, and violence between Gbagbo and his political rival, election winner Alassane Ouattara, has only grown. In just a matter of days, the number of refugees leaving the Ivory Coast for Liberia has quadrupled from 20,000 to 80,000, and fighting -- once far in the interior of the country -- has reached the border.
"The civil conflict [in the Ivory Coast] … at times it seems like it's on the verge of war," U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Karl P. Albrecht told me yesterday. "It could be a destabilizing or unsettling influence, and in addition to all the challenges that Liberia faces," he said, noting that this is a presidential election year for the country, "now this [Ivory Coast] factor is in the mix."
Here in West Africa, peace is fragile. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have all suffered civil wars within the last decade, and in every case, the fighting was regionally tainted. Liberia's warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor, supported rebels in Sierra Leone and backed a certain faction in Ivory Coast's civil war as well. The greatest fear for this region -- so desperate to recover from years of conflict -- is that the smallest spark could reignite the regional fire again. Over the last few days, those fears haven't looked unfounded. Two developments are of greatest concern: the growing refugee crisis and the active fighting along the Ivory Coast-Liberia border.
Take the refugee crisis -- the largest West Africa has seen in half a decade. After an initial flood of refugees in January, the numbers of people crossing the border had slowed to a mere 100 per day -- until just a few days ago. Now there are some 80,000 refugees in Liberia, far outpacing capacity to house and assist them. The current refugee camp under construction has room for a mere 15,000. That's less than half of the number that arrived in the last weekend alone.
For now, many of the incoming refugees are staying with Liberian families, sharing their food and being welcomed into their homes. "They have shared their rice with them, even though they themselves are getting strained," Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in a radio address to her country on Monday. "If [the number of refugees] climbs too high, it will be trouble for us."
The fighting along the border is even more troubling -- and the cause of the refugee crisis in the first place. On Monday, the rebel group Forces Nouvelles took a third town along the border, now controlling a 30-mile strip along the border. The ex-rebels support Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last November's presidential election; Gbagbo supporters have fought back. And civilians have undoubtedly been the victims. In many ways they already are; Gbagbo cut electricity and water to the Ouattara-stronghold in the northern part of the country over a week ago.
But here's the part that scares Liberia -- and West Africa -- most of all. During Ivory Coast's civil war early this century, the Forces Nouvelles had allies in a faction of former Liberian rebels who supported Charles Taylor. And rumors are circulating here that those Liberian men might be traveling back across the border to join the fighting again. U.N. security forces here confirm that armed men also tried to cross the border into Liberia on Sunday.
It's a potent combination: fighting along the border, recruitment of ex-rebels into the Ivorian conflict, and refugees streaming over the border, burdening already economically stretched Liberians. An Ivorian resident of Monrovia, whose wife lives in Abidjan, told me that his family hadn't left the home for days, afraid of the violence on the streets. "It's a civil war in Abidjan. It's really bad." The question is, will it spread?
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For the last six years, Ivory Coast's government-controlled south and rebel-controlled north have held together thanks to a fragile cease-fire. Everyone's greatest fear since the cease-fire was signed was that it would break -- that the tiniest escalation could bring the country back into the brutal civil war it endured between the two sides throughout the first half of the decade.
Early Thursday morning, the cease-fire broke in Ivory Coast's interior. The government forces and the rebel forces -- known as the Forces Nouvelles -- started shooting. And they haven't really stopped since then. This morning, the Forces Nouvelles seized a government- controlled town.
The fighting in the countryside is a manifestation of escalating political conflict in the Abidjan. Outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo (backed by government troops) remains staunchly unwilling to step down to the internationally recognized election winner, Alassane Ouattara (backed by the Forces Nouvelles). On the streets and in the neighborhoods of Abidjan, things are also getting ugly -- or rather uglier. After weeks of rumors and reports that pro-Gbagbo militias were hunting down opposition supporters, now there are signs that the violence cuts both ways. Pro-Ouattara militias -- known to locals as "invisible commandos" -- have risen up in resistance. "Hundreds" of residents were seen streaming out of the neighborhood after overnight clashes.
Not so long ago, the West African community, ECOWAS, was talking about possible military intervention if Gbagbo refused to step down. But these days, there's only talk about a possible unity government between the two rivals -- a terrible idea, if you ask me -- and continued economic sanctions. The international community has done a pretty good job of trying to starve Gbagbo of cash. And in theory it's a good strategy, since much of his support comes from his uncanny ability to keep salaries flowing even in the trickiest times. But Gbagbo is not too easily caged, and is now considering printing his own currency. At the very least, he'll switch all the government accounts from sanctioned banks into hard cash.
As I've written before, this is the trouble with trying to wait out a strongman: You risk the very real chance that he can wait longer than his people can. While Gbagbo is busy finding ways to pay his military, regular Ivorians are getting tired. Shortages of food and cooking oil are now common; a whopping nine out of every 10 bank accounts is now inaccessible due to sanctions and freezes. Some 45,000 people have now fled the country as refugees, and another 39,000 are internally displaced -- 9,000 of whom are all based at a single Catholic mission near the border with Liberia, according to a briefing from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees this morning.
Active fighting, refugees, economic crisis -- what other indicators are we waiting for? This is becoming a civil war again, and fast.
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As a measure of how bad violence has gotten inside Libya, look to the borders, where tens of thousands have already fled -- and a further 300,000 might be on their way. "It is a biblical exodus," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Reuters today. Speaking on BBC News World Service this morning, a representative from the International Red Cross said that his organization was preparing capacity along the border with Tunisia for as many as 10,000 new refugee arrivals today.
This isn't just Libyan nationals; the country is home to 1.5 million immigrants, the International Organization for Migration estimates, many from sub-Saharan Africa. Libya even played host to some 8,000 refugees from places such as Somalia, Eritrea, and Chad. Now, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has "no access" to that population. And those populations may indeed be in danger; tweets this morning from Libya indicate that African immigrants in Libya are afraid to leave their homes, for fear of being mistaken for mercenaries.
Aside from the immediate-term humanitarian challenge this presents, the refugee situation matters because it is a sign of structural upheaval within a society. It takes innumerable courage to go to the streets and protest against one's government wherever repression is strong. But it takes equally incredible levels of fear -- and distrust of the future -- to pick up everything and leave.
It takes years, not weeks or months, to resolve refugee crises. So if there was any doubt of the magnitude of events unfolding, this should give us a final clue: No matter what happens to Qaddafi, there will be no quick fixes for the country he has ruled.
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images.
As violence grows in Libya, an urban myth -- one that has been passed around diplomatic circles for the last half decade -- has been effectively shattered: that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, is the moderate, Western, reform-oriented heir that London, Paris, and Washington have been waiting for.
By now, you'll have seen Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the second oldest son of the Libyan leader, on air defending the brutal decades-long rule of his father. In a speech that had echoes of his dad's long and rambling incoherence, Saif blaimed the ongoing protests on everyone from criminals to Islamists. He promised that Qaddafi would fight to the last protestor. And he was unapologetic about a death toll that he seems to have massively under-stated; he claimed that just 14 have died, while Human Rights Watch puts the number at over 200. For those who have long lauded Saif, and secretly hoped that he would succeed his father, this speech was a wake up call.
It's worth a brief look back to remember just how Saif built this image to begin with. It helped get the ball rolling that the young Qaddafi, a PhD graduate of the London School of Economics, looked and acted more in touch with modernity than his eccentric father. He dresses in suits and fits into Western diplomatic circles. But the rumor officially became myth several years back, when Saif won credit for convincing his father to publicly renounce weapons of mass destruction and to compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, which Qaddafi funded years ago. Suddenly seen as a progressive interlocateur, Saif became the point person with Western governments -- a position he retains to this day; when the British foreign minster lodged a complaint against the Libyan government's treatment of protestors yesterday, it was Saif they called.
But it's been through the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation that Saif has really made his name. The non-profit, incorporated in Switzerland, put forward a more progressive image of Libya in which Islamists were compassionately re-integrated into daily life and poverty was combatted with every tool available. Journalists visited jihadi re-integration sites and praised what they saw.
Today we're seeing a rather different picture of Libya. From what reports are leaking through -- there is no foreign media allowed in Libya -- government forces are hoping to exorcize the country of protestors, with air strikes, live rounds, and allegedly foreign mercenaries if that's what it takes.
So here's the biggest test: If Saif is telling the truth and the protestors really are delinquents -- and the security forces so disciplined -- why not let the international press in? That's the only chance left for this prince to manage his image. Even then, the myth of a moderate heir can't be saved.
As revolutions across the Arab World are sending autocrats fleeing for exile, at least one ousted president -- far away from Cairo and Tunis -- claims he will soon return home: to Madagascar. Marc Ravalomanana, who was booted from office in a 2009 coup, vowed today that he would return on Feb. 19, leaving his exile in South Africa.
It's not clear what exactly Ravalomanana (shown sporting his plane tickets above) is hoping to achieve by showing up. Not least because he's likely to be arrested as soon as his plane lands; the current regime, headed by coup-instigator Andry Rajoelina, lobbed massive charges against him for corruption and convicted him in absentia. (To jog your memory: Ravalomanana's unseating was a particularly ugly one; the army surrounded the presidential palace and sent him fleeing. After weeks of stand off, he finally resigned, handing power over to the fiery ex-disc jockey who remains president to this day.)
That Ravalomanana wants to return is a potent reminder that this crisis was never actually solved. The African Union suspended Madagascar's membership in protest of the coup. But then once it looked like an irreversible development, everyone started to look the other way. There was a sigh of collective resignation. Time to just to put up with Rajoelina, and then expect elections to be held eventually.
But now, elections are supposed to be held -- later this year. And African Union mediators have had trouble convincing the current regime to get on board with any transition plan. Having lost the momentum at the beginning of the crisis, outsiders are finding themselves helpless to try and pull strings toward democracy now.
Maybe all this would be a shruggable matter -- if it weren't for the example it sets at a time when African countries need some better ones when it comes to democratic transition. A record number of African countries will hold presidential elections this year -- including Uganda tomorrow, then Chad, Nigeria, Djibouti, and Niger, to name just a few. None of those countries' leaders is apt to step down without a fuss (and several will make sure that election outcomes are sufficiently fixed before hand.) Turning the other way on little Madagascar makes that all the more likely.
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