The International Crisis Group (ICG) has expressed concern over the ever deteriorating situation in Ivory Coast. They have called on ECOWAS to ensure Gbagbo’s removal from power by all necessary means before it is too late and the situation descends into violent anarchy and ethnic cleansing.
They note how any debate about the outcome of the election dated 28th November ’10 was finally settled on the 10th March this year by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union who confirmed Alassane Ouattara as the sole legitimate president of the country. Yet this international condemnation of the incumbent regime has had little effect on Gbagbo’s resolve to remain in power. Indeed it was met with renewed armed attacks on Ouattara’s supporters and repression of the population.
The UN puts the death toll since the crisis began at 440. But the ICG believes this falls way short of the actual number and they point out the increasing daily attacks on civilians as well as reports of rape, torture and disappearances as the fighting between Gbagbo and Ouattara’a supporters intensify with the use of heavy weaponry. They say there is no danger of the conflict sliding into civil war, it has already begun.
One major threat from civil war is mass civilian killings and ethnic cleansing. On top of this the war would entail the complete destruction to peace and stability in the country and the wider West African region. Displacement of peoples being caused by hate speech has already begun. On top of this there is a very real threat of xenophobic attacks. The Ivorian state television, controlled by Gbagbo aired images of the bodies of rebels killed by security forces, described as nationals of other countries in West Africa. The ICG believes this sort of rhetoric is open encouragement for reprisals against immigrant communities. The protection of immigrant communities in Côte d’Ivoire cannot be assured by a regime that is so willing to threaten them and release militia to attack them.
That Gbagbo is calling for inter-Ivorian dialogue and an end to the violence should not be treated warmly. He has already recognised Ouattara’s election victory on the 18th of March. These attempts of co-operation are nothing more than an attempt to hang on to power. Indeed this admission of defeat was followed the next day with Gbagbo’s Minister for Youth, Charles Blé Goudé calling on young Ivoirians to join the army in order ‘to free Côte d’Ivoire from bandits.’ It is a clear call of aggression towards Ouattara’s supporters.
The ICG is also keen to portray the damaging impact on wider West Africa in order to add weight to their calls about the need for ECOWAS’s involvement. Ahead of the group’s meeting, that took place on the 23rd and 24th of March, the ICG called for them to offer Gbagbo a last opportunity at a dignified and peaceful exit or face military action from ECOWAS.
If that fails then ECOWAS should plan for military intervention with the assistance of United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). This military mission should be with the express goal of protecting all citizens inside the country in the likely outcome of an eruption of violence. It should also aim to assist President Outtara government in establishing its authority over all defence and security forces within the country.
In addition to this they should ask the UN Security Council to consider adopting emergency measures which could include allowing UNOCI military actions in order to effectively protect civilians. And, along with the African Union, adopt individual sanction against those who continue to reject the decision of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union dated 10 March 2011.
It is a call that looks like dividing ECOWAS opinion, with the group split on how strongly to pursue their threat of force issued in December. The firm stance and call on the UN to take more decisive action by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathon is not one that has been roundly endorsed by the rest of the group. Jonathon, who is also Chairman, of the group said he aimed to ‘pass a resolution to request the United Nations to take more serious steps in the Cote d’Ivoire situation.’ His Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia has gone further and attacked the inaction of the international community over the crisis. He accuses the UN of double standards, after imposing a no-fly zone over Libya but doing little to bring the abuses in Côte d’Ivoire to an end.
Yet despite the tough talking from the Nigerian camp on the issue, little concrete action was taken as many participants look to the African Union to take the lead on the issue. An ECOWAS spokesman at the summit in Abuja said ‘we will continue with what the AU is doing and then see where to go from there.’ It indicates that the mood in ECOWAS has changed from wanting to lead the international community in decisive action on the emerging conflict, to now being content to take a back seat and assist, with the exception of Nigeria. Observers such as Kabiru Mato, a professor at Abuja University believe ECOWAS’s inaction and insistence on getting the UN to lead any action shows its weakness. He believes it exposes the inability of the region’s states leaders to be decisive and lead on an issue of global importance.
It looks to set a dangerous precedent for the group as they are prepared to leave threats of force as simply that. Indeed it seems Nigeria are looking isolated in recognising the true risk of inaction here not only to the future of Côte d’Ivoire but also for the message it sends out to the continent as a whole where more than a dozen elections are scheduled for the year. Mrs Gobwee, director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), agrees that ECOWAS needs to be firmer in defending its principles and ensuring peace and security within the region. She said ‘ECOWAS inaction on this issue will contradict it’s commitment of moving to an ECOWAS of people where citizens in the region have security, freedom of movement and expression.’ Women across West Africa are deeply concerned by the situation. On the 22nd March a group put forward a letter to the ECOWAS heads of State appealing for them to take steps to stop the escalation of violence in the conflict. This was followed on the 24th March with over 100 women gathering outside the summit in Abuja to reiterate the demands of action to end the violence.