The cost of peace in Ivory Coast

Katharine Houreld
15 February 2006

Champagne and Molotov cocktails were both on the menu at United Nations bases in west Africa in January. In Liberia, world leaders toasted the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first female president and the poster-child for international intervention. But in neighbouring Ivory Coast, angry mobs gathered at UN bases around the country to demand their withdrawal, hurling petrol bombs and looting humanitarian offices. Two neighbours, two civil wars, two UN peacekeeping missions. In one country the UN are hailed as saviours. Next door, they are vilified. Where did it all go wrong?

In the last two decades, civil war has spread like a cancer through west Africa. In Liberia, fourteen years of brutal conflict was only ended after the intervention of international peacekeepers in 2003. While the UN has managed to disarm over 100,000 combatants and hold credible elections, resulting in the presidency of Johnson-Sirleaf, intervention in neighbouring Ivory Coast does not seem so successful.

The country has been frozen into civil war since a failed coup attempt in 2002. International troops patrol a zone of confidence separating the northern rebels from the government controlled south but last year's elections were postponed, prompting the formation of an interim government with representatives from both sides. In January, a UN-backed mediation group tried to kick-start a stalled peace process by recommending parliament's mandate not be renewed. The institution, stuffed with supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, is seen as one of the main stumbling-blocks to peace.

Also by Katharine Houreld in openDemocracy:

"A taste of freedom" (September 2005)

"'I am woman, hear my roar'" (October 2005)

"Liberia's elections: striving for peace" (November 2005)

"Liberians' payback hour" (January 2006)

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In response, militant youths targeted UN bases across the country. While donors stood up to pledge hundreds of millions to help reconstruct Liberia, across the border humanitarian agencies were torched. "There is lots of fuel for continuing the conflict," observed one western diplomat, staring out his window at the traffic on a tree-lined avenue in Abidjan. Following the violence, he had asked not to be named. "In Liberia, the conflict stopped when there was nothing left to loot but there is a lot of money left in this country. Both the rebels and the government are making money."

He says three key issues have hampered the peace process in the Ivory Coast: a lack of resources compared to peacekeeping operations in Liberia; uncertainty over whether the peace agreement takes legal precedence over the constitution, as was agreed for Liberia; and most importantly, the survival of strong state structures with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Liberia, in contrast, had simply collapsed and peacekeeping forces stepped into the vacuum.

Alan Doss, who was the second-in-command in the Ivory Coast before leaving to head the UN mission in Liberia last summer, says that flooding the country with peacekeepers was vital to disarmament. "It's a relatively small UN presence [in Ivory Coast]. It may seem a lot, 7,000 soldiers, but per capita we should have 70,000 for a similar ratio as we have here and had in Sierra Leone… We also had a much more radical disarmament programme in Liberia…we [the UN] have monopoly on arms and the use of force."

The thinly stretched forces have been unable to stop frequent attacks on villages. This week, twelve people were killed in the west of the country.

It is often difficult to tell which massacres are sparked by war and which are squabbles over land rights, but many of them inspire revenge attacks, pushing the peace process further back. Next door, the tiny country of Liberia hosts 15,000 blue helmets; it was announced this week that 250 of them will be moved across to Ivory Coast and more are being deployed to the border.

Gilles Yabi, the Ivory Coast analyst for think-tank International Crisis Group, says that greater military clout must be backed up with political negotiations. "The key issue is to get a commitment to solve the problem of identity cards for northerners but the President's party is worried that this means they might lose power in the next elections," he noted. Identity cards are required for casting a vote.

Pro-Gbagbo Ivorians say that northerners born in the Ivory Coast to parents from neighbouring countries should not be entitled to vote in the upcoming presidential elections. The Ivorian constitution, which concentrates enormous power in the hands of the executive, means that whoever wins the presidency is able to heavily influence all arms of government.

"All these people just have to share the power, look at how we did it here – Mandingo, Gio, Krahn, Mano…they all had to sit side-by-side in the government," said Edwin Allen, alluding to Liberian tribes who are traditional enemies. The Liberian taxi driver just returned from eight years spent as a refugee in Ivory Coast.

"Even the Mandingo, they come from Guinea but we let them in for peace. We are tired of war," he said, referring to the mainly Muslim traders from the north of the country who formed the backbone of Liberia's main rebel movement.

Outside the UN compound in Abidjan, 26-year-old protestor Serge Pacome disagrees. "The UN behaves like the Ivorians are illiterate and they make decisions without taking into account the wishes of the people," he said, kicking a teargas canister. "I am ready to come out and protest for a month if I have to."

The UN's head of mission in Ivory Coast, Pierre Schori, is resigned to further demonstrations. Behind the blackened walls of his headquarters, he points out that both Liberia and Sierra Leone went through numerous failed mediations and broken peace pacts before a solution was finally achieved.

"We need the political will in Ivory Coast…right now each side is sitting in his camp looking at the other," he sighed.

Although many Ivorians blame the UN for the stuttering peace process, they still live in a relatively prosperous country compared to their devastated neighbours, and the peacekeepers' presence means that relatively few people have died in the conflict there. Some Liberians think that Ivory Coast will have to sink to the depths of its devastated neighbour before peace is possible.

"Ivory Coast is a very fine place, they have skyscrapers and very nice things," said Allen. But as he gestured from his window to the darkened shells of buildings pocked with bullet holes he added, "they should not forget that Liberia was once one of the richest countries in west Africa. Now look at us. They should all come over here and see what war can really do."

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