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Series of Briefings Exploring the Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire Triggered by Contested Elections

With both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara laying claim to the presidency, the bitter political divisions in the country have led to worsening violence. While regional and international bodies have repeatedly called on Gbagbo to step down, neither sanctions nor mediation initiatives have come close to breaking the deadlock. Gbagbo and Ouattara head rival administrations, both trying to maximize their resources and isolate the other party. IRIN’s series of revised briefings takes a look at the handling of the crisis by the UN, regional bodies the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), western governments, and the European Union (EU), while also looking at the economic, human rights and humanitarian consequences of the breakdown.

USA – only a back-seat role?

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice was among the first senior diplomats to advocate endorsement of Ouattara’s victory. Since then, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and several other figures in the administration have spoken out. The message has been consistent: Gbagbo must give way to Ouattara, with increasingly strong hints that the longer Gbagbo refuses the advice, the more severe the penalties will be. While pushing the case for a political solution to the crisis, the USA has also warned against negotiations where Gbagbo tries to set preconditions or looks to reopen discussions on the elections. Suggestions that Gbagbo might offer the vice-presidency to Ouattara while staying on as head of state have not found favour in Washington, with the Obama administration making it clear the election results are internationally certified and must be allowed to stand.

There is concern, too, that Gbagbo, now adopting increasingly desperate measures to stay afloat and loath to see his financial activities scrutinized by a hostile government, is looking for apologists in the media and elsewhere to put his case. The US stands firmly behind the AU and ECOWAS on mediation initiatives but is concerned about a loss of momentum and cohesion within the two African bodies as the crisis continues and it becomes more difficult to maintain a consensus. There have been accompanying warnings about the deteriorating human right situation, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton among those to speak out.

Faith in African diplomacy

The USA has recognized a new, Ouattara-named ambassador, Daouda Diabaté, to replace Gbagbo’s envoy, Charles Yao Koffi. While Gbagbo has demanded the expulsion of the UN and the ambassadors of France, Canada and the UK, there have been no requests yet for Washington to close its embassy. But Ambassador Phillip Carter has faced virulent criticism in the pro-Gbagbo press, which has repeatedly pointed to an American-French conspiracy to install Ouattara. Carter recently came under attack from government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello for “serious and inadmissible” interference in Ivoirian affairs, a direct response to a press briefing given by Carter in Washington on 4 February.

Carter explicitly played down Washington’s role in resolving the conflict, emphasizing the importance of Africa’s lead. “How it’s going to work out is that basically this is an Ivoirian thing, it’s an African thing, and the Africans are looking at their resources and their means by which to allow for this political transition to occur as peacefully as possible.”

Carter stressed the legitimacy of the elections, and came out clearly in favour of the position by the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), which gave victory to Ouattara in December, and against the Constitutional Court, which designated Gbagbo as victor. “We stand with President Ouattara”, Carter emphasized. “Trying to set that election aside would be a major step back for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Looking at Côte d’Ivoire after the elections, Carter said: “The situation is such that the country is in a sense of stasis. It’s frozen.” He pointed to a deteriorating human rights situation and accused Gbagbo of hijacking the state media, “turning it into a propaganda machine that has been spewing out basically invidious information.” Echoing earlier warnings from Obama and Clinton, Carter said that the worsening violence raised important questions of accountability.

While acknowledging that Ouattara’s government was effectively “sequestered” for now, Carter said that time was on Ouattara’s side and that his attempts to gain control of key financial institutions, notably the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), along with the imposition of international sanctions, would steadily squeeze Gbagbo. “How long that will take, it’s unclear”, Carter acknowledged.

In a televised interview with American broadcaster George Curry in January, Gbagbo described Carter as “discredited” and blamed his reported failure to take phone calls from the White House on Obama’s lack of trust in Carter. Ghagbo’s relations with Carter’s predecessor, Wanda Nesbitt, were also reported to be strained, in contrast with the cordial relationship between Gbagbo and former Ambassador Aubrey Hooks.

Other administration representatives have echoed Carter’s caution. Asked by French TV chain France 24 if the US would back the use of force against Gbagbo, State Department West Africa Bureau Director Mary Beth Leonard said “no option should be ruled out”, but repeatedly emphasized the importance of the ECOWAS and AU diplomatic approach.

An ECOWAS delegation, headed by Sierra Leonean President Ernest Koroma and including Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumgobia, visited Washington on 26 January, meeting National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and US Assistant Secretary of State Johnny Carson. The White House said discussions had focused on finding a peaceful solution in Côte d’Ivoire and ensuring Gbagbo’s departure, with all parties noting “the importance of maintaining international unity on this point”.

US military cooperation with ECOWAS

The US military has developed strong partnerships with a number of armies in West Africa. The head of the United States Army Africa (USARAF), Maj-Gen David Hogg, visited military commands in Ghana, Togo and Benin 10-14 January.

The deputy to the commander for Civil-Military Activity, US Africa Command (Africom), Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, a former US ambassador in Burkina Faso, visited Nigeria in late January. US assistance to the Nigerian military has includes refurbishing five C-130 Hercules aircraft, a task taken on at the Nigerians’ request to help support peacekeeping operations in Africa.

In February, Africom hosted an annual Senior Leaders Conference at USARAF’s headquarters in Vicenza, Italy. The conference’s main theme was “Delivering Capabilities to a Joint Information Environment”, and was attended by AU and ECOWAS military personnel. The US Mission to the AU in Addis Ababa includes an important military component, working closely with the AU’s Peace and Security Commission on issues like conflict mitigation through mediation and peacekeeping and support for the African Standby Force (ASF).

''Everyone says this man is an evil thug who needs to go. That’s not true. He’s a Christian, he’s a nice person and he’s run a fairly clean operation in the Ivory Coast''

The US, in common with the EU, the AU and ECOWAS remains adamant that military intervention should be a last choice. Senior officials acknowledge that the US has taken part “in very initial planning” with ECOWAS on the kind of scenarios that might be envisioned if diplomacy fails. Should an ECOWAS response force be assembled using armies that the US has partnerships with, US support would likely extend to pre-deployment training and the provision of small amounts of equipment.

Speaking for Gbagbo

Prominent American supporters of Gbagbo have been rare, but tele-evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) has challenged the international community’s position on Côte d’Ivoire, presenting the Ouattara-Gbagbo rift as a Christian versus Muslim split, with Robertson himself strongly defending Gbagbo. Robertson told viewers: “Everyone says this man is an evil thug who needs to go. That’s not true. He’s a Christian, he’s a nice person and he’s run a fairly clean operation in the Ivory Coast.”

Civil rights leader and businessman Charles Steele Jr, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), once led by Martin Luther King, visited Abidjan in January, met Gbagbo and pledged to establish a Peace and Conflict Reconciliation Center. Gbagbo, who has referred to Luther King as one of his heroes, said he supported the initiative.

France – strong declarations and embassy altercations

French President Nicholas Sarkozy firmly endorsed Ouattara’s election victory and has issued a series of statements since, opposing Gbagbo’s attempts to stay in power, notably with an ultimatum on 17 December ordering Gbagbo to leave “by the end of the week” or face sanctions. “The president of Côte d’Ivoire’s name is Alassane Ouattara”, Sarkozy has emphasized, warning that Côte d’Ivoire is a critical example for African democracy. In retaliation, Simone Gbagbo has referred to Sarkozy as “the devil”.

But Sarkozy has also remained opposed to French military intervention. Both he and Defence Minister Alain Juppé remain adamant that the 900-strong Force Licorne is in Côte d’Ivoire to complement the UNOCI force and defend French nationals. The same view was conveyed by French Minister of Cooperation Henri de Reincourt during a visit to Ouagadougou, where he emphasized: “France is not calling for and has never called for a resort to armed force.” After meeting with Ban Ki-moon in New York on 7 February, French Defence Minister Alain Juppé said economic sanctions were the best tactic that could be deployed against Gbagbo. “I think we should apply them with a lot of determination.”

In his keynote speech to the AU in Addis Ababa on 30 January, Sarkozy made fleeting but pointed reference to the Ivoirian crisis, describing Côte d’Ivoire as a country “where the will freely expressed by an entire people in an election meant to seal the return to peace is being treated with disdain,” adding that “France resolutely supports the efforts of the African Union, ECOWAS and the UN Secretary-General.”

Gbagbo and his supporters remain deeply wary of French intentions. Gbagbo’s spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, announced on 22 January that the accreditation of French Ambassador Jean-Marc Simon had been revoked and that Simon should now be considered “jobless, an ordinary French citizen who is for us no longer an interlocutor”. The French government rapidly ruled this move illegal and insisted that Simon would stay on. A government statement said: “France considers positions and statements supposedly made on behalf of Côte d’Ivoire by those who have not accepted the consequences of the presidential election results to be illegal and illegitimate.”

The Simon affair carries echoes of an earlier episode in 2002, when Gbagbo pushed for the replacement of then Ambassador Renaud Vignal, who left Côte d’Ivoire in October 2002, protesting at being badly misrepresented in the Ivoirian state media.

The move against Ambassador Simon appeared to be in response to the Sarkozy government’s recognition of Ouattara’s designated ambassador in Paris, former journalist Ali Coulibaly, and demand for the withdrawal of the Gbagbo-appointed academic Pierre Kipré. Having been denied access, Coulibaly and supporters staged a forced entrance to the embassy on 25 January and Coulibaly has been formally accredited by the French authorities.

According to the French press, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped persuade a delegation of MPs from Sarkozy’s own party, the Union pour la majorité présidentielle (UMP) to call off a mission to Côte d’Ivoire. According to details of the itinerary released in Abidjan, the MPs were due to meet several members of the Gbagbo administration, which is not recognized by France. Senior figures in the UMP were critical of the mission, hinting that it had been organized without the knowledge of the party hierarchy and that the MPs’ scheduled meetings with Gbagbo might be used for Gbagbo’s own propaganda.

Gbagbo retains the support of some long-time allies in the French Parti Socialiste (PS) notably Guy Labertit, often described as the PS’s “Mr Africa”, who attended Gbagbo’s inauguration and accused the UN of “usurping power”, trying to install Ouattara in the face of strong evidence of electoral fraud.

While Gbagbo’s FPI remains a member of the Socialist International, analysts in Abidjan and Paris point out that Gbagbo’s alliances go across the French political spectrum. Paris-based lawyer Marcel Ceccaldi, whose previous clients include leader of the French Front National (FN) and Guinean military leader Dadis Camara, has fiercely criticized Ban Ki-moon for his role in certifying elections, arguing that the UN outstripped its mandate and rode roughshod over Ivoirian constitutional procedures.


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