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Côte d’Ivoire: getting it right

A decade’s war and a election drowned by violence are a tough legacy. Côte d’Ivoire’s president must be generous to overcome it, says Rinaldo Depagne.
Rinaldo Depagne
8 September 2011

The welcome to the White House of four democratically-elected African presidents on 29 July 2011 was an occasion rich with symbolism. But for one of the visitors, Alassane Ouattara - the new president of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) - there was no escape from a difficult domestic situation.

Ouattara had heard President Obama warn him that he must now focus on security and reconciliation to allow for real progress. After the reception he was obliged to deny that former rebels were still in control of parts of the west African state, and to vow to crack down on anyone who does not respect human rights.

The shadow of a near-decade’s civil war hangs heavily on Côte d’Ivoire. The election of November 2010 was supposed to end the violence. But Ouattara’s victory (by a margin of 54%-46%) over his rival and predecessor Laurent Gbagbo was disputed by the latter, who continued to claim he was the legitimate president. A violent stand-off in which thousands of civilians were killed lasted for five months, until international pressure led to Ouattara’s inauguration in April 2011.

The tragic coda to the civil war left Ouattara with a difficult set of simultaneous tasks: stabilising and reunifying a divided country, rebuilding Côte d’Ivoire’s shattered economy, pursuing Gbagbo’s followers in rural areas (especially the country’s west), engaging Gbagbo’s former allies, and seeking justice (yet ensuring it is meted equally to both sides).

A hard road

These many-sided challenges will test Ouattara to the limit. The condition of the security forces make the country’s reunification hard. These forces split three ways during the post-election violence (with some loyal to Gbagbo, some to Ouattara and some to neither). This left Ouattara finally to oust Gbagbo with the help of former rebels from the north who had previously fought in the civil war. These remain present and influential in Abidjan, the economic capital in the country’s south; as long as this situation is unchanged, the effective return and integration of former governmental forces will be hard.

But even restoring the police and army will not be enough to demilitarise the country. For during the post-electoral crisis, arms in huge amounts were distributed throughout the country. Until they are collected, which will require intensive assistance from United Nations forces, security will remain elusive.

The question of justice too is fundamental. Ouattara’s government has already charged some of Gbagbo’s former political and military allies, but none of his own forces have been indicted. There needs to be even-handed investigation of crimes committed by both sides, something that only the International Criminal Court (ICC) is likely to accomplish. Ouattara has already asked the court to examine post-election crimes against humanity and war crimes. The fact that such atrocities in Côte d’Ivoire date back to 2002 makes it appropriate for the ICC prosecutor to extend the investigation period to the entire span of the conflict.

A politics of exclusion has deformed Côte d’Ivoire, and to overcome this it is essential to include former Gbagbo supporters in the political process. Ouattara did promise to include Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), in a national-unity government; but the FPI rejected the offer - and for the most part refuses any responsibility for its part in the bloody post-election conflict. Since then, Ouattara has shown no signs of allowing the FPI space to reorganise and take part in the forthcoming legislative elections, an approach that would end any possibility of parliament accurately reflecting the country’s political allegiances.

The danger here is that Ouattara uses judicial and logistical procedures to neutralise and humiliate Gbagbo’s party. This would merely store up problems that would emerge at some point in the future. The incoming head of the UN mission, Bert Koenders (a former minister in the Netherlands) needs to deliver a clear message to the government on this point, and emphasise the importance of dialogue.

The country already has a “dialogue, truth and reconciliation commission” to investigate crimes committed during the violence. But this will be effective only if Ouattara ensures that its legal framework is fair, representative, and independent from the government,

The president’s mettle

By comparison with these tests, economic revival in Côte d’Ivoire should be easier. The country is the world’s largest cocoa producer, and Ouattara has international credibility from his time as deputy director of the International Monetary Fund. However, international investors will only come to play if the country is stable and safe. Again, this makes it essential that Ouattara shows concern for all Ivoirians and that he truly wants reconciliation. which means allocating resources to communities who suffered the most from the post-election violence, including those ethnically close to Gbagbo in the west.

In turn this requires Ouattara to disband the insurgency that helped him capture the presidency, while ensuring adequate livelihoods for those who hand over their arms. The security vacuum can then be filled temporarily by UN troops, via a proactive interpretation of their new mandate.

Côte d’Ivoire remains in an extremely fragile condition. To create a more stable future, Alassane Ouattara needs to make the right decisions about his country’s security, justice and economy. The country’s troubled recent history makes this a tough call. But Ivoirians need a president that offers them hope. 

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