More than four months after Laurent Gbagbo lost the Côte d'Ivoire Presidential election yet chose to hold onto power through violence, the UN peacekeeping force stationed in the country is finally taking physical steps to dislodge him. Of course their strikes on military bases and Gbagbo’s own compound are formally a response to the massacres of civilians and the shooting of eleven peacekeepers by Gbagbo’s troops over the past week (regime change is not within the force’s mandate), but no one is in any doubt that they are intended to assist the troops of democratically elected and internationally recognised President Alassane Ouattara – who claim to be just hours away from taking the main city of Abidjan.
Sadly this is in many ways too little too late. Back in November 2010, as soon as Gbagbo’s plans to extend his decade long rule through the barrel of a gun became clear, there were widespread calls for international intervention. Yet the African Union – still relatively week and weighed down with fighting in Somalia, was nowhere to be seen. The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was left largely impotent by its most powerful member- Nigeria- being in the midst of its own election campaigns. And the broader international community, still pre-occupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and later the Arab Revolutions, was reluctant to bolster the existing UN force or strengthen its mandate.
The result was a long stand-off peppered with death squads, shootings and an outflow of refugees that eventually hit crisis level. Then, seemingly left without any other recourse, Ouattara’s troops began a rapid military advance to take control of the country once and for all. The North-South civil war that the election was meant to mark a final break from virtually reignited; racial and religious divisions continued to meld with the political ones; and on Saturday some one thousand people were slaughtered in the town of Duekoue.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of this is that Ouattara’s troops were undoubtedly involved in that massacre (probably as the main perpetrators) as well as numerous other such war crimes. Thus, even if the UN succeeds in helping to remove Gbagbo – as in now almost inevitable – Ouattara will come to power not on the back of a democratic election, as could have been the case, but on the back of barbarity and murder. Furthermore, the tensions that have been allowed to build up over the past four months, will almost certainly result in revenge attacks on those who stood by Gbagbo – a situation that, owning to the tribally and religiously tainted politics of Côte d'Ivoire, could rapidly spiral into ethnic cleansing.
It goes without saying that this was never going to be an easy transition and that even if the international community had helped to force Gbagbo out immediately after the election, tensions between the two sides would still have turned violent. However, the human cost and the country’s future prospects have unarguably been cast far bleaker by the long power struggle that has taken place.
The big issue now is what happens next. Neighbouring states, most likely swayed by the huge refugee influxes that they are facing, have begun to discuss intervention to aid stabilisation, whilst mass media coverage (and the chilling echoes of Rwanda) have strengthened support for broader international assistance. However these developments could come in many forms and from many different angles. It will be tempting to prioritise stability over justice but both will be needed in the long-run. Individuals and ethnic groups aligned to Gbagbo– whatever their crimes, must not be allowed to become victims of extra-judicial purges; whilst Ouattara, though the democratically elected leader, must be held to account for any war crimes that his troops have committed. The world must learn from the mistake of giving Paul Kagame a free hand to terrorize Rwanda after his troops liberated the country in 1994; but on the other hand, serving Ouattara with an ICC arrest warrant the day after his inauguration could simply cast Côte d'Ivoire back into further turmoil.
With the peace process clearly in tatters, the old dictator exiting in an orgy of violence and the new leader riding to victory on the back of crimes against humanity the only certainty is that Côte d'Ivoire’s toughest times are still to come.