Unrest Spreads in Ivory Coast

by by Erica Schwiegershausen

illustration by by Annika Finne

The three-month political stalemate in Ivory Coast has seen a surge in violence in recent weeks, raising concerns that civil war may be imminent. The situation further deteriorated this week as Abidijan’s Abobo neighborhood came under renewed attack by the forces of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo. The attack on the Abobo neighborhood, which supports Gbagbo’s opponent, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, is the latest in a series of attempts by Gbagbo to maintain power through force after losing the disputed election this past November.
This outbreak of violence hit the region after a three month post-electoral struggle between north and south. Gabgbo’s term expired in 2005, but he managed to repeatedly postpone elections until last November. Following a three-day wait for results, Ouattara was declared the winner with 54.1% of the vote. However, before the end of the day the Constitutional Council, headed by a supporter of Gbagbo, invalidated the result, claiming that the votes in seven pro-Ouattara northern regions had been rigged and declaring Gbagbo the true winner.
The international community is unconvinced by these unsubstantiated claims, and has widely refused to recognize the Constitutional Council’s verdict. Even the typically timid UN has been so bold as to call Ouattara the winner. However, Gbagbo has refused to step down, rejecting proposals of African delegations which offer amnesty and comfortable exile abroad. In the months since the election, Ouattara has been inaugurated and the presidential rivals have set up opposing governments.
The current violence is reminiscent of the country’s brief civil war in 2002, when an uprising of northern rebel forces left the country divided between the north, controlled by the New Forces, the rebel group currently backing Ouattara, and the south, which remained under control of Gbagbo and the government army. Many hoped that the 2010 election would help heal the north/south divide and reunite the country, but presently such an outcome is looking less and less likely.
Gbagbo has maintained power, despite his loss of the presidency, by continuing to pay the salaries of soldiers and key civil servants, though his access to the country’s treasury has been curtailed since mid-January. The Ivorian army has remained loyal to Gbagbo, although his current lack of funds means that nearly half of February’s army and civil service workers won’t be paid. For now, however, the army continues to fire machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into neighborhoods it describes as “infiltrated by pro-Ouattara rebels.” The UN estimates that about 500 people, mostly Ouattara supporters, have been killed since the election.
Now, citizens are fleeing the capital and surrounding neighborhoods at an alarming rate. Abidjan is collapsing under Gbagbo’s brutal fight to stay in power, with businesses shutting down and employees being laid off. Many banks have closed, all A.T.M.’s are out of service, and cash is increasingly rare. Nine newspapers opposed to Gbagbo have closed, citing that they could no longer withstand police harassment and constant threats of violence against their journalists. All over the country, citizens are scared, hungry, and without work or money. It is believed that the New Forces are moving south along the border, and there is widespread fear of what will happen when they reach pro-Gbagbo strongholds.
In Abidjan, formerly one of West Africa’s most prosperous cities, lines of women can be seen fleeing on foot, balancing their possessions on their heads to the sound of nearby gunfire. On the narrower sections of the Cavalla River, rafts packed with hundreds of Ivorians make their way to the safety of Liberia. Grago Malhn Michelle, a refugee from Bahieleu, told the BBC that he fled after an armed soldier confronted him in his home: “While I was in the room he came to me with a gun and knife in his hand. I blocked the knife and it gashed my hand. These were government soldiers. There were no rebels in the village. After they did this to me, they took all my belongings and carried them. They just came to harass me and take things from me. I never did anything.” Currently, between 300,000 and 400,000 Ivorians have been registered as internal displacees within neighboring Liberia, a number which will likely put a strain on the country of 3.5 million, which is still recovering from its own 14-year civil war.
It is unclear how the present situation in Ivory Coast will develop. Although Gbagbo has shown no signs of relinquishing power, he is feeling increasing pressure to step down. His army has suffered an increased number of armed assaults in recent days. Last week gunmen affiliated with the New Forces captured several small towns in the country’s west from Gbagbo’s forces. Such attacks have been aided by increasing defections by Gbagbo’s troops.
Unfortunately, the future of the world’s largest producer of cocoa looks bleak. Gilles Yabi, the West African director of the International Crisis Group told Time: “The best scenario, which in fact is quite bad, would be a country that remains divided with two separate administrations with the possibility of military confrontation in the future.” For now, unrest is spreading, Ivorians are fleeing, and Ouattara remains confined to a lagoon-side hotel under 24-hour guard by U.N. peacekeeping officials.

ERICA SCHWIEGERSHAUSEN B’13.5 is not controlled by the new forces.