20 December 2010
Alex Vines

Dr Alex Vines OBE

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


A tragedy is unfolding in Côte d'Ivoire that will have regional ramifications. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo is under international pressure to concede electoral defeat to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whose victory has been recognized by the United Nations, the African Union (AU), the United States, and the EU. He has refused to budge, claiming electoral fraud, and has now called on the 9,000 UN and roughly 900 French troops to leave because they are partisan. So far they have refused to do so; in effect indicating he no longer enjoys international recognition as head of state.

More than 50 people have been killed in violent unrest since the election and several thousand Ivoirians have fled to neighbouring Guinea and Liberia. The UN says it has received hundreds of reports of people being abducted from their homes at night by armed assailants in military uniform. Côte d'Ivoire is heading for renewed civil war with Laurent Gbagbo internationally isolated, but not prepared to accept AU offers of a dignified exit as the elder statesman.

The UN, US, Economic Community of West African States and AU are likely to impose their own sanctions. Such a united front is rare, and measures over Gbagbo and his inner circle will bite over time when their international trips and banks accounts will be frozen. In the short term, EU targeted sanctions on trade, and on Gbagbo, his wife Simone and eleven others are a strong statement, but little more. There is no talk of an immediate sanction on cocoa - Côte d'Ivoire is the world's top cocoa producer - or on banana or pineapple exports, as these would have significant humanitarian impact. Neither is there talk as yet of sanctions on Cote d'Ivoire's limited, but growing oil exports.

The Jeunes Patriotes militia leader, Charles Blé Goudé, a prominent agitator for Gbagbo who has been mobilizing young people to fight, is already under UN sanctions. In 2006, when I was UN sanctions inspector, I saw the temporary calming effect sanctions had on his behaviour, but this time he risks destroying his chance of running for the Ivorian presidency in the future if he unleashes violence and becomes the focus of the International Criminal Court.

International markets have reacted quickly to the crisis, with the African Development Bank and the World Bank reviewing their lending programmes. The World Bank had tied the cancellation of $ 3 billion of Côte d'Ivoire's external debt, estimated at $ 12.5 billion, to the elections. The unrest is also pushing up cocoa prices. Australia's Newcrest Mining Ltd has suspended operations in its gold mine at Bonkiro and other businesses are withdrawing all but essential staff. Previous unrest had forced the African Development Bank to relocate to Tunis from Abidjan. Renewed civil war in Côte d'Ivoire will further destroy one of Africa's leading economies, impact the region and possibly divide the country for ever.