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Chaos and crimes on both sides, but Ouattara is still Côte d’Ivoire’s only choice

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The eyes of the world are currently fixed on Libya as a coalition force bombs the country. The debate about whether the west should have intervened in the Libyan revolution rages on. But some 3,500km south-west of Tripoli, in Côte d’Ivoire similar circumstances have arisen.

The situation in Côte d’Ivoire has evolved (devolved, some would say) at a rapid rate. In just four months, the west African country went from having a peaceful presidential election to open civil war. In between, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the US, France, Nigeria and South Africa all had a say in the power struggle between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. We’re all pretty familiar with the narrative by now – Gbagbo lost the elections, but refused to give up power to the northerner Ouattara.

It was pretty easy to wag a finger at Gbagbo and say he should honour the will of the people and step down three to four months ago when it was all just talk. When it seemed to be “just about an election result”. Any democrat of any repute could easily see what Gbagbo was doing was dictatorial and undemocratic.

However, Gbagbo didn’t step down, and now a rebel army from the North is in Abidjan and on the brink of enforcing the election result through the muzzle of an AK-47. The question remains, do we still continue to support Ouattara as the rightful president of Côte d’Ivoire now that atrocities have been exchanged and people killed? I believe in this particular situation, the free world ought to continue supporting Ouattara by putting pressure on Gbagbo.

The first fact that seems to be overlooked time and again is that this conflict goes beyond a disagreement over the outcome of the 28 November elections. This all goes back to the death of the Ivorian dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993. Houphouët-Boigny had ruled Côte d’Ivoire as a benign dictator for 33 years and the country had prospered under his rule. Though he did not recognise many fundamental rights, his rule was considered genially paternal. When he died, a power struggle ensued between the president of the national assembly Henri Konan Bédié and the prime minister Alassane Ouattara. Bédié eventually succeeded in deligimitising Ouattara’s bid by declaring him an outsider through the xenophobic concept of Ivoirité and succeeded Houphouët-Boigny as president.

Ouattara had to wait 18 years before he could successfully run again, a period in which the country underwent a brutal civil war as the ethnic and religious tensions between the north and south flared up again. The 2010 elections were supposed to unite the country. When Gbagbo lost, he chose rather to rekindle the old hatred by declaring that the ballots from the north of the country were botched and, therefore, there should be a re-election. This was despite international observers having ratified the elections. With hindsight, it becomes clear Gbagbo’s plan was to cling to power by provoking the north into war. He knew very well what he was doing when he evoked Ivoirité against Ouattara.

Things didn’t go as well as Gbagbo hoped, mainly because the country’s army was not as powerful or as loyal as he thought. After running out of patience, the Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire began marching south to overthrow Gbagbo, seize control of the country’s main asset, the cocoa fields, and the economic capital, Abidjan. Gbagbo now has the civil war he wanted. But is losing it.

The UN says both sides have committed crimes against humanity. Hunters known as the Dozos, who are aligned to Ouattara, killed 300 people in the western town of Duekoue, the UN said. The attack by Gbagbo’s military on Ouattara’s supporters in Abidjan is well-documented. The attacks have led to the UN passing a heavy-weapons ban on Gbagbo and his supporters.

Before rejecting Ouattara on this basis it is important to remember he does not control the FRCI, the “invisible commandos” or any of the other armed militias fighting against Gbagbo. Ouattara’s situation resembles that of medieval kings – the power really lies with the barons and their armies, or in the case of Côte d’Ivoire; rebel armies that control the different parts of the country. The FRCI (the largest army backing Ouattara), formerly known as the Forces Nouvelles are under the control of the former rebel Guillaume Soro, now Ouattara’s prime minister and minister of defence. To blame Ouattara for their deeds is to blame him for something that was largely out of his control. However, since they fight for him, one would imagine he would speak out against actions with which he does not agree. He has done that already, and called for a stop to violence against citizens. Contrast this to the continued exhortations to violence from the Gbagbo camp.

While on the subject of armies, a lot more than the keys to the presidential palace rode on the 28 November elections. These elections were the outcomes of a long and precarious negotiation process to get all the various factions to the table and to agree to a peaceful solution. It was the first step in what was supposed to be Côte d’Ivoire’s road back to sustainable peace and democracy. Again, by rejecting the election results, Gbagbo was essentially saying, “Screw half the country and our agreement, I’m staying even if they don’t like it.”

When all this is taken into account, the question changes from whether Ouattara deserves support or not, to whether Ecowas should have been allowed to deploy troops as they first wanted. Gbagbo’s belligerent response to both international and local pressure makes the lives lost in Côte d’Ivoire his fault.

The other question is why the allied forces have not bombed Gbagbo, given that the reasons they bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s part of Libya is the protection of civilians. However, they haven’t and the people of Côte d’Ivoire’s best shot at lasting peace is still Alassane Ouattara. DM


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