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How the West Failed Ivory Coast

Violence, inaction, and a dangerous new precedent

Freetown, Sierra Leone—Twelve days ago, I rode on the back of a motorbike through the forests of Grand Gedeh County in eastern Liberia to a remote crossing point on the border with Ivory Coast. On the Liberian side were jumpy Bangladeshi peacekeepers who stood close by local security forces wearing blue fatigues and coalscuttle helmets. On the Ivorian side were the rebels of the Republican Forces, who support Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election last year. Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent who lost to Ouattara, has refused to step down for almost five tumultuous months. Fighting was underway nearby, and Liberian mercenaries were crossing the border to take part. In this febrile atmosphere, the men on either side of the crossing occasionally tried to ease the tension by posing for photographs with each other on the bridge that marks the line between the two countries.

After much brandishing of documentation, the Liberian guards let me through, and I crossed into Ivory Coast. In the village of Pekanhouebly, I interviewed the commander of rebel forces in the west of the country, Brigadier General Gueu Michel. The fighters in his entourage had doubled up the magazines of their Kalashnikovs with sellotape, in accordance with Hollywood tradition and in violation of first-world military training. General Michel insisted though that he and his men were professionals, operating under civilian authority. “We are an army, under the command of civil authority, the president of the republic,” he said. After their commander departed in a convoy of pickups and SUVs, the morale of those left behind to the guard the border crossing was high. They loosed the odd pot shot into the air. Victory, they said in French, was obligatoire.

Soon after my encounter with General Michel, and after months of attrition, the rebels finally made spectacular gains in Ivory Coast. Sweeping down out of their strongholds in the north on several fronts, they took the important port of San Pedro and the country’s official capital, Yamoussoukro. Late last week, they also entered the country’s commercial capital, Abidjan. Now, reports indicate that the rebels have surrounded the presidential residence, where Gbagbo, apparently, is holed up in a basement bunker, reportedly negotiating his surrender.

Such then is the situation within Ivory Coast itself. But the greater story is one of two strikingly similar crises to which the international community has reacted in profoundly different ways. While the West has intervened in oil-rich Libya, where another embattled leader refuses to step down, across the Sahara in Ivory Coast, it has largely stood back from the country’s slow descent into internecine strife. Only this week, at a very late stage in the conflict, have U.N. and French air strikes supported the rebels. ‘

Indeed, while Libya demonstrates a renewed appetite—certainly among European nations—for the concept of liberal intervention, events in Ivory Coast prove just how selective that appetite is. Abidjan is very much the foil to Benghazi, and no view of the one is complete without an appraisal of the other.

The Ivorian standoff did not erupt out of nowhere. The former French colony was once a bastion of stability in a troubled region, but a civil war that began in 2002 left the country split between a loyalist south and a rebel-controlled north. The election last year was meant to reunite the troubled state, but, as it turned out, it achieved quite the opposite result. Despite regional and international consensus that Ouattara won, a constitutional court annulled 500,000 ballots from northern regions and gave Gbagbo a result that was more to his liking. He refused to step down, and stalemate began.

Before and immediately after the election, it was not clear how severe the situation really was. Gbagbo was going nowhere. West Africa shuttle diplomacy failed. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc, announced in late December that it supported military action, but it never materialized. Meanwhile, as Ouattara’s supporters in Abidjan attempted unsuccessfully to storm the state broadcaster, casualties mounted, many of them civilian.

Then, at the beginning of this year, with the Ivorian crisis already over a month old, the Middle East detonated. Demonstrations turned to revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, and to civil war in Libya. Confused Western rhetoric about what to do with the latter country eventually solidified, after Qaddafi vented untold brutality on his own people. He must go, the West said. The airstrikes followed.

For Ivory Coast, the immediate impact of the Arab Spring was obfuscation. West Africa has a paucity of Western journalists at the best of times, and the momentous events elsewhere pushed the continuing crisis—and the burgeoning influx of refugees into neighboring Liberia—off the front pages. But there was a greater result, too: The emergent consensus and subsequent airstrikes on Libya, when compared to inaction beyond sanctions in Ivory Coast, showed clearly that, for the international community, there are two sets of rules to follow: one for strategically important countries, another for those that are not.

As the West launched its Libya intervention, in Ivory Coast, sporadic violence escalated. Rebel forces, frustrated by the political impasse, began to advance in the west of the country. While earlier influxes of refugees had moved as a precaution, now villagers fled toward Liberia at the sound of approaching gunshots. Some 800 people were killed in the town of Duekoue alone. In Abidjan, U.N. helicopters flew overhead while Gbagbo’s men shot civilians. Yet they, and the wider Western world, did not intervene.

At the same time, the insidious rhetoric of “power-sharing” began to raise its ugly head, as the African Union proposed it as a way to resolve the lengthening crisis. Such has happened before in Africa—in Zimbabwe, in Kenya—when one side has lost an election but refused to step down. Through intransigence and often violence, the losing side has later been able to force itself into a so-called “government of national unity” or a “transitional government,” undermining the democratic process. Such action was mooted for Ivory Coast at an AU-brokered summit in Ethiopia—never mind that any outcome allowing Gbagbo to retain power would send a foul message to other states in an area where democracy’s hold is fragile.

To be sure, there are obvious reasons for the disparity in Western action between Ivory Coast and Libya. The former country may be the world’s largest cocoa producer, but Libya possesses vast amounts of oil, a much more important commodity. There is perhaps, too, a fear—largely unjustified—that West African wars are somehow more intractable of those elsewhere, even in the Middle East. Also, in notable contrast to the rag-tag Libyan rebels, the Republican Forces in Ivory Coast have been more successful in taking and holding territory independently. And they are not angels; there are reports of atrocities on their side as well as Gbagbo’s.

The success and faults of the rebels, however, do not add up to an argument for non-intervention. Even if Gbagbo is ousted and Outtara finally takes power, no thanks to the West, it’s likely that thousands have died, and untold suffering certainly has rained down on the Ivorian people. This crisis did not need to go on this long. The West should have shown some stomach, sooner and more decisively.

It had a regional example to look to: In 2000, Britain deployed troops to Sierra Leone, stiffening a floundering U.N. mission, and played a key role in bringing a bloody, decade-long civil war to a close, at a cost far less than subsequent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were substantial differences between the situations in Sierra Leone eleven years ago and in Ivory Coast now—notably, the British paratroopers and Royal Marines were not attempting to force an incumbent president to capitulate. But the British troops’ success, in small numbers and on the cheap, is a key reminder that is possible to intervene in West Africa without becoming trapped. Instead, in Ivory Coast, the West risked establishing the precedent that you can lose an election, attack your own people, and stay in power—that no one will come and force you to leave.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. You can find him at

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