Côte d’Ivoire: On the Brink of War

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For over 54 percent of the voters of the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire, the November 2010 presidential election was a dream denied.

The vote was intended to end nearly a decade of political crisis in the country. Former President Laurent Gbagbo, however, has unabashedly rejected the results of the vote, as announced by the National Election Commission of Côte d’Ivoire, even though it was deemed to have been free and fair by the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations and a large majority of national governments worldwide. More than three months after the election, Côte d’Ivoire’s legally elected president, Alassane Ouattara, remains confined to a hotel in Abidjan, while the Gbagbo regime continues to thwart the rule of law and to violently suppress freedom of expression by domestic opponents of his continued illegitimate tenure.

Gbagbo has refused to cede power to Ouattara and his regime and its supporters are waging a continuing campaign of terror against a large numbers of Ivorians, United Nations peacekeepers, and foreign businesses and residents in the country. According to the United Nations, the human toll includes over 365 deaths, dozens of rapes and a large but unknown number of abductions and disappearances by security forces. On March 3, Ivorian security forces reportedly fatally shot seven women protestors.

As the world has turned its attention toward democratic transformation and popular rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East, Gbagbo and his supporters have become increasingly brazen. In recent days Gbagbo has exacerbated the suffering of innocent civilians by shutting off electricity supplies to the northern portion of the country, where many residents support Ouattara. Multiple news outlets have reported that these power outages have stopped the flow of piped water and crippled hospitals, leading to the deaths of premature babies, and forced residents to turn to unsafe water sources. Gbagbo has also seized the assets of private banks, the regional stock exchange, and the local offices of the West African regional central bank. Gbagbo is clearly willing to push his country and its neighbors into a state of political anarchy and economic disarray in order to maintain his grasp on political power.

A five-member African Union heads of state panel is formulating recommendations for ending the crisis. One option that is reportedly being considered by some African leaders is a power sharing agreement. A Gbagbo-Ouattara power sharing agreement, however, would unacceptably and illegitimately nullify the democratic choice of the 54 percent majority of the Ivorian electorate that voted for Ouattara, and would send the wrong message to incumbent candidates in the seventeen other elections slated to take place in Africa this year.

The United States and international community have invested substantial political and financial assets in the electoral process in Côte d’Ivoire and the ongoing post-electoral crisis has placed this assistance at risk. The Ivorian electorate, however, which voted freely and fairly for political change in the country, has the most to lose as a result of the catastrophic situation that Gbagbo is fostering. At risk is the people’s right to freely and fairly choose their leaders, live in safety and security, and to earn a living in a functioning economy. Ivorians are fighting – and dying, just as citizens in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya – to protect these rights. The world must not turn a blind eye to their struggles or wait until the country plunges into civil war to respond to this crisis.

Congressman Donald M. Payne (D- N.J) is ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights. This February, he introduced House Resolution 85, which supports the democratic aspirations of the Ivoirian people, and calls on the United States and international community to support African efforts to resolve the crisis. The resolution also calls on the U.S. and international community to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Cote d’Ivoire and neighboring countries hosting Ivoirian refugees.

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