5 April 2011
Alex Vines

Dr Alex Vines OBE

Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme


Côte d'Ivoire has the opportunity to finally unite after ten years of separation and two civil wars.

Alassane Ouattara won the presidential election in November 2010 - an election aimed at bringing stability with 54.1 percent against 45.9 percent for President Laurent Gbagbo. But since then, a dangerous power struggle has been underway with Mr Gbagbo refusing to accept the election results.

There are important lessons to draw from what has happened in Côte d'Ivoire. Independent electoral oversight of elections is critical and united international endorsement of the legitimate winner from regional and continental bodies is essential. Visionary leadership and the ability to except electoral defeat with dignity, rather than dragging a country back to civil war as Laurent Gbagbo has achieved, is key.

This crisis was not just about the election, buthas much deeper roots. Following the death of former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny  in 1993, the country succumbed to coups, chaos and ethnic division. The current fighting is the latest chapter since civil war erupted in 2002 and split the country. In March 2007, a deal mediated by neighbouring Burkina Faso and approved by the African Union (AU) stipulated fresh elections, although these were several times delayed. Finally, two election rounds took place in 2010, with a run-off in November 2010.

The international response

This week, support for Mr Gbagbo has deteriorated, helped in part by the UN finally using its airpower, backed by French forces, to knock out Mr Gbagbo's remaining key military assets. The presence of UN forces in Côte d'Ivoire acting to defend civilians from indiscriminate shelling by pro-Gbagbo forces, was effective.

Prior to the UN's action, the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions on Gbagbo, his wife Simone and seventeen others (which grew by February 2011 to 91 individuals and 13 economic entities). The US slapped on its own sanctions.

Côte d'Ivoire is the world's largest cocoa exporter and in January 2011 the EU barred all EU companies from doing business with Ivorian institutions seen backing Mr Gbagbo following Mr Ouattara's call for cocoa sanctions. This resulted in some 400,000 tonnes of cocoa worth over $ 1billion left in storage facilities, stopping payments to Mr Gbagbo and his supporters.

Côte d'Ivoire also defaulted in early February on its $ 2.3 billion Eurobond leaving the country effectively sequestered from the international debt markets. International markets reacted quickly to the crisis. The regional bank also cut off the government's access to state accounts in late December, putting them at the disposal of Mr Ouattara's government-in-waiting. The deteriorating banking environment resulted in western and regional banks in Abidjan suspending their Ivorian operations, resulting in a cash crisis. Cash flow problems piled pressure on Mr Gbagbo making it difficult for him to continue paying for loyalty.

Regional pressure

African institutions have also played their role. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU suspended Côte d'Ivoire and threatened sanctions last December. ECOWAS, led by Nigeria, also threatened to use 'legitimate force' to depose Mr Gbagbo. The UN Security Council caught up on 30 March by imposing sanctions on Mr Gbagbo and his inner circle through a resolution drafted by France and Nigeria.

The AU called for an inclusive government to re-unite the country following recommendations made by an AU high-level panel. This signalled to Mr Gbagbo's supporters that their efforts to have the election results recounted had failed and that Mr Gbagbo's days as president were numbered.

International policy increasingly needs the lead of regional and continental bodies. As we saw over Libya, Arab League endorsement for a no-fly zone was instrumental in getting approval by the UN Security Council. In a multi-polar world, P-5 Security Council members do not automatically call the shots: Russia was forced to moderate from a pro-Gbagbo position because of the African common position supporting Mr Ouattara.

Finally reunited?

Mr Gbagbo has shown poor leadership, but Mr Ouattara, will need to demonstrate quickly wise and visionary leadership, including ensuring his forces do not commit human rights abuses - especially as 45.9 percent of Ivorians did not vote for him.

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More resources

Ivory Coast will need Alassane Ouattara to play the role of mediator
The Guardian, Alex Vines, 6 April 2011

Ivory Coast violence 'sending a message'
BBC R4, Today Programme, Tom Cargill, 4 April 2011