Ivory Coast violence escalates over power impasse | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 17.12.2010
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Ivory Coast violence escalates over power impasse

The situation in Ivory Coast is deteriorating following an election leaving the country with two presidents and two governments. As the nation slips toward chaos, the international community fears a return to war.

Supporters of Ivory Coast opposition leader Alassane Ouattara react as news spread that President Laurent Gbagbo won the election in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday, Dec. 3, 2010.

The disputed election threatens to split Ivory Coast in two again

Ivory Coast is bracing for more violent unrest following clashes on Thursday in which at least 20 people were killed after security forces loyal to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo fired on pro-Alassane Quattara supporters in Abidjan. The United States has in the meantime pulled all its non-emergency embassy staff out of the country.

The EU has given Gbagbo until the end of the week to give up his claim to the presidency or face sanctions and possible UN prosecution. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Brussels that EU leaders were unanimous in their call for Gbagbo to leave office. Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers approved a first round of sanctions, including an asset freeze and travel ban, on several other leading officials.

Observers say that the key to power is control over the state television headquarters still held by Gbagbo. "State TV is crucial to gain and preserve power," Koné Lanciné, general secretary of a broadcasting trade union, told Deutsche Welle. "The fact that Gbagbo still has some control in Ivory Coast is largely due to the fact that he controls the state-run media."

On Friday a number of independent newspapers were shut down to prevent them from reporting on the deadly clashes. "RTI (state broadcaster - ed.) has turned into a propaganda medium. They're disseminating hate in all its forms, ethnic hatred and racial hatred," said Lanciné.

The opposition challenger Ouattara and incumbent Gbagbo both claimed victory in the Nov. 28 election and have both sworn themselves in as president. Ouattara was declared the winner by the country's electoral commission after the run-off, with provisional results giving him a 10 percent lead over Gbagbo.

The result in favor of Ouattara has since been ratified by the United Nations and recognized by the international community.

Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara

Gbagbo and Ouattara both claimed victory in the election

Despite Ouattara's support in the international community, Gbagbo has defied international calls to cede power and has rejected the UN's ratification of the result.

The current situation raises fears of a return to the violent divisions which split the nation in two between the rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south during the civil war of 2002-2003.

International concern heightens as crisis deepens

The situation is already sending nervous ripples through the international community, especially in organizations responsible for funding development programs in the poverty-stricken nation.

The World Bank and the African Development Bank have both questioned the "usefulness and effectiveness" of their aid programs to Ivory Coast given the breakdown in governance and have admitted to concerns that the turmoil in the country could drive many more Ivorians further into poverty while causing instability and affecting economic prosperity in the wider West African sub-region.

Supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara protest in burning tires in the street of Treichville neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010.

International organizations fear the unrest could spread

"Although the situation is troubling, the international community has reacted very quickly," Richard Gowan, an Africa expert with the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

"The African Union, ECOWAS and UN have made it clear that the world is watching what happens next in Cote d'Ivoire. Big firms with cocoa and mining interests in the country have done the same. With luck, this level of scrutiny will deter both sides from escalating tensions into all-out violence."

Compromise seems impossible, even with UN intervention

Dr. Dirk Khonert, the deputy director of the Institute of African Affairs at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and a member of the EU election observation team in Ivory Coast, said that the main stumbling block to a solution was whether both rival candidates would be prepared to accept defeat.

"Ouattara has a very strong international backing against Gbagbo," he told Deutsche Welle. "Thus, he derives his legitimacy not only internally but also externally by the backing of the international community. It is difficult to imagine under these conditions that he and his followers would be inclined to accept a compromise on the question of the presidency."

United Nations soldiers from Togo stand guard outside the Golf Hotel, where opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was sworn-in as president, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010.

UN efforts to keep the peace may not prevent conflict

It is unlikely that a compromise will satisfy either man as any deal may have to be brokered by the United Nations which has given its support to Ouattara, therefore alienating Gbagbo's team. Gbagbo has a long record of ignoring international pressure and appears to be ready to take the country to the brink of war to retain power.

He is also unlikely to consider the best option available to African Union mediators which would be a government of national reconciliation, with Ouattara as president and a significant input of Gbagbo activists in the cabinet.

Although the UN Security Council has officially backed Quattara as president, Khonert said that Security Council intervention would not guarantee success. "That would require a robust mandate, backed by considerable additional military engagement, which would be more than the 8,500 UN troops currently present in Ivory Coast, and additional finance. It is doubtful under the present conditions, whether the major parties involved would agree to this."

Rival factions ready for a return to war

A rebel soldier who declined to be identified, talks to the press near a crowd who are chanting anti Ivorian government slogans in Bouake, Ivory Coast on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2002.

Concerns are high that a new civil war could divide the nation

Should the violent protests continue, Ivory Coast may find itself slipping closer to a new civil war. Ouatarra commands the support of the rebel-controlled north while Gbagbo has the sworn allegiance of the army. Rebel leaders have already said that they will not wait long to take action should Gbagbo refuse to stand down. "In view of the history of violent conflicts in the Ivory Coast in the past decade, there is a high risk of a return to civil war," Khonert said. "The most dangerous element is the unpredictable attitude of the militias of the presidential contenders; the 'jeune patriots' in Abidjan or Duekoué in the western region of the country."

For Richard Gowan the worst-case scenario is a return to full-scale conflict. "In that case, the UN peacekeepers don't have the forces to stop war and France, which has troops in the country, will want to avoid getting dragged into fighting. Diplomacy is the last best hope."

Author: Nick Amies, Ute Schaeffer, Ibrahim Tounkara, Dirk Koepp (rm)

Editor: Rob Mudge

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