Cote d’Ivoire: Ouattara restores calm after the stand-off – By Ashley Elliott

Ouattara v Gbagbo.

Cote d’Ivoire’s recent post-election problems began in the wake of the November 2010 presidential polls. After the election commission initially gave victory to the opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara, a crooked Constitutional Council overturned the result in favour of the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo. Both men claimed to have won, swore themselves in and appointed parallel cabinets. Skirmishes soon began in the commercial capital Abidjan and in the west of the country, pitting security forces and militias loyal to Gbagbo against the New Forces (FN) – a rebel group in control of the north since 2002 – and other pro-Ouattara factions.

Ashley Elliot is West Africa Analyst at Control Risks, a London-based political risk consultancy.

A long stand-off ensued. Gbagbo enjoyed a degree of support in the south and maintained control of the state, its institutions, funds and armed forces. Holed up in Abidjan’s Hotel du Golf and protected against Gbagbo’s forces only by an 800-strong UN guard, Ouattara had a contrasting set of advantages: he was powerless in the south but carried the backing of the marginalised northern population, was recognised by the international community, controlled international funds and had the full backing of the UN Mission in Cí´te d’Ivoire (UNOCI).

By April 2011, 1m civilians had fled Abidjan, 150,000 refugees had crossed into neighbouring Liberia and over 3000 Ivorians had been killed. Businesses and banks closed, inflation spiralled as sanctions hit, the port was deserted, the national electricity and water companies sabotaged, official buildings ransacked and government accounts emptied.

Then without warning the deadlock lifted. On March 30, pro-Ouattara forces – hastily assembled under a new label, the Republican Forces of Cí´te d’Ivoire (FRCI) – captured the main cocoa port of San Pedro and the administrative capital Yamoussoukro on the same day. The FRCI’s rapid advance led to sporadic urban conflict in Abidjan, where Gbagbo made his last stand. As in Libya, the conflict was perhaps longer than anticipated but, when it came, the fall of the capital was faster than expected: with assistance from French military forces and UN helicopter gunships, Gbagbo was captured on 11 April.


By the first week of May, open conflict had ceased in Abidjan. Pro-Gbagbo soldiers – some of them Liberian mercenaries unable to disappear back into the civilian population – put up a last stand at the naval base in Yopougon district. They were quickly defeated by the FRCI. More than 60 bodies were later discovered. After that, joint FRCI-French gendarme patrols were put in place across the city. This ad hoc system restored civilian confidence after weeks of fighting. The sight of French, UNOCI and FRCI units conducting “˜mixed patrols’ deterred potential looters and vigilante groups. (In the absence of any unified command structure for Libya’s patchwork rebel factions – and without a UN or NATO presence on the ground – it is hard to imagine the security vacuum being filled so quickly in Tripoli.)

With Abidjan secure, President Ouattara – a former IMF technocrat – is now seeking to turn around an economy he inherited in free fall. He has already restored basic stability to the business climate: critical infrastructure is back online, the majority of international firms with an existing footprint have returned from temporary evacuations in Ghana and Senegal and a string of donor promises and investment deals have been signed. A presidential emergency programme announced in June will provide 15bn euros ($20bn) in funding over the next five years. The World Bank forecasts economic growth of 8-12% in 2012, up from an estimated 7.5% of negative growth this year.

Yet this positive outlook for the economy is entirely dependent on two conditions: (i) the continued unity of the new administration; and (ii) its ability to bring armed former rebel groups under the control of the state. Neither condition is guaranteed.

A fragile coalition

The new unity government is however lacking in new faces. Leading participants in the crises that followed the death (in 1993) of the country’s first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, remain at the heart of the political scene. For example, the new Prime and Defence Minister and former rebel strongman Guillaume Soro is a potential spoiler. Soro’s politics are opportunist: having once headed the youth wing of Gbagbo’s ruling party, he then turned against Gbagbo to lead the FN before later emerging as Prime Minister under Gbagbo’s unity government. The danger for Ouattara is that Soro will now pursue his own presidential ambitions, allowing a new crisis to develop in which he can situate himself as the pivotal powerbroker. This he could easily do: for example, by refusing to reign in the 10 powerful comzones – former FN regional commanders who continue to run their own militias – thus leaving the new national army stillborn.

Ouattara’s government also depends on the support of Henri Konan Bedié, a former president (1993-99) and leader of the Democratic Party of Cí´te d’Ivoire (PDCI), which has eight ministerial positions in the new administration. Bedié came third in the first round of the 2010 presidential before burying his old animosity to Ouattara by delivering him the votes needed to win the second-round run-off against Gbagbo. But having subsequently denied Bedié the Prime Ministerial position he expected in reward, Ouattara may now struggle to keep him on side. The litmus test for these fragile relationships at the heart of government is the upcoming legislative elections, scheduled for late 2011 but likely to be delayed into early 2012.

Security Sector Reform

Beyond these political challenges, Ouattara must peel back the embedded dominance of men in uniform over civilian politicians in Cote d’Ivoire. To do so, he needs to confront Security Sector Reform (SRR) in a comprehensive way. New army appointments were made in July and August, but the full integration of a new national army has a long way to go. The former FN rebels who have been in control of the north since 2002 have yet to hand in a single weapon and Abidjan is still partly controlled by comzones such as Chérif Ousmane. The task of transferring territorial control from former rebels to state security forces could prove hazardous: with their role as gatekeepers of a lucrative illicit economy under threat, there is a risk the comzones will put up resistance.

Meanwhile, the integration of a new army could be undermined by mistrust between its constituent parts. The FRCI originally comprised of three main groups: former rebels, the so-called “˜invisible commandos’ that emerged to oppose Gbagbo’s forces in Abidjan, and deserters from Gbagbo’s forces. To this motley collection will be added soldiers from the Gbagbo-era Ivorian Security and Defense Forces (DSF). None of these groups are natural allies.

Gradual stabilization

Can Ouattara prevail over such a diverse array of challenges? I am optimistic that the new government will restore basic stability to the business climate and achieve at least partial reform in the security sector. The country is likely to become more stable than under the Gbagbo presidency (2000-2011), even if political-infighting, latent ethnic and sectarian divisions, heavy demographic pressures (Cote d’Ivoire has one of the youngest populations globally) and the residual presence of non-state armed groups will continue to present difficulties. Despite set-backs, a new national army should eventually be formed, the legislative polls will be held, and the economy is set slowly to recover. Cote d’Ivoire has a solid chance – its first in over a decade – of gradually breaking away from the politics of permanent crisis.

This optimism is grounded in two developments. First, the government has already made real progress in key areas. In Abidjan, the security environment has improved rapidly since the chaos of April. Checkpoints have been removed, the discipline of FRCI units has progressed and – according to reports from Abidjan’s main wholesale distribution suppliers, and restaurant and bar owners – armed robberies and violent crime are now rare. Outside the commercial capital, the situation remains fragile in some areas – particularly in the volatile western regions of Moyen-Cavally and Dix-Huit Montagnes – but there have been notable improvements in the discipline and unity of the FRCI. The impunity of pro-Ouattara forces allegedly responsible for war crimes during the April conflict has yet to be addressed, but the integration of the new national army does appear to be gathering momentum.

The second boost to the young Ouattara regime is that hard line Gbagbo supporters no longer represent a credible threat to the new order. Despite rumours of a coup plot, exiled figures such as Charles Blé Goudé – formerly leader of Gbagbo’s Young Patriots paramilitary group – lack the financing, popular support and motivation to unseat Ouattara. The disincentives to confronting the new government by unconstitutional means are strong: French and UNOCI troops remain in country and the FRCI’s treatment of residual loyalist forces after Gbagbo’s arrest in April – those 60 bodies found in Yopougun – signals that open resistance will be met with force. Hence, rather than plotting to regain power, members of Gbagbo’s inner circle are likely to concentrate on the more prosaic task of evading their domestic and international arrest warrants.


Chronology of a crisis

31 Oct/28 Nov: First round of presidential election/second-round run-off

2 Dec: Electoral commission (CEI) announces provisional results, declaring victory for Alasaane Ouattara with 54.1% of the vote

3 Dec: Constitutional Council rejects CEI results; after annulling results from the north, the Council pronounces Gbagbo the winner with 51.4%

17 Feb: Banks close. Gbagbo’s regime threatens nationalisation and takes over local branches

31 Mar: A northern rebel offensive moves south. Facing little resistance, rebels take control of the cocoa port of San Pedro and move into Abdijan

11 Apr: A final assault on the presidential compound by French and Ivorian troops leads to Gbagbo’s arrest

21 May: Ouattara sworn in as president

1 June: New cabinet announced

17 July: UN peace-keeping mandate renewed

13 August: International condemnation of alleged war crimes perpetrated by pro-Ouattara forces

17 August: Key Security Sector Reform (SSR) objectives and time-line announced, including promise to demobilize 10,000 fighters by end-2011

August 19: Laurent Gbagbo and his wife Simone charged with “˜economic crimes’ and placed under preventive detention

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One thought on “Cote d’Ivoire: Ouattara restores calm after the stand-off – By Ashley Elliott

  1. As someone who lived through the entirety of this crisis in Abidjan I have numerous problems with your narrative here. There are a lot of critical factors at play here that you haven’t even touched on, and a lot that are inaccurate.

    “By the first week of May, open conflict had ceased in Abidjan.” Hardly. In some districts the fighting had stopped, but certainly not all.

    “put up a last stand at the naval base in Yopougon district. They were quickly defeated by the FRCI.” No, they weren’t. This battle ensued for several weeks.

    “This ad hoc system restored civilian confidence after weeks of fighting.” I think this perceived confidence is largely dependent on what one’s ethnic and political leanings are. I have taken numerous accounts of people who have been abused by this new “ad hoc” system, so one can hardly say that confidence was restored to the civilian population in general. I also frequently overhear angry conversations about the new system…

    “The sight of French, UNOCI and FRCI units conducting ‘mixed patrols’ deterred potential looters and vigilante groups.” While it may have deterred some looters and vigilante groups, it certainly hasn’t stopped all looting. Also, the majority that I have seen on the ground are not “mixed patrols” but rather FRCI units alone. Since the crisis I have only seen one “mixed patrol” unit on the streets. The rest have all been solitary FRCI units, a mostly previously untrained rebel army and this has caused numerous problems that have been well documented by HRW and others.

    “critical infrastructure is back online”– We haven’t had any running water for almost two months now and our electricity cuts at least three days a week. Cellphones frequently cut out or have no signal. We also didn’t have a house phone working until only a week or so ago. Our internet has been sporadic at best. Many businesses and factories are reliant on generators and water reservoirs to ensure they don’t lose precious business hours to the cuts.

    “The task of transferring territorial control from former rebels to state security forces could prove hazardous”– there is very little left of the state security forces to transfer control over to. The main task is in properly training the FRCI to take over this role, and integrating those that are left from the old security sector into their ranks. There is also the matter of collecting arms and reintegrating former FRCI members back into society.

    “Checkpoints have been removed”. Um. No they certainly haven’t. They are less than what they were, but I still get stopped almost every single day by a man with an AK.

    “armed robberies and violent crime are now rare”. I’d have to strongly disagree with this statement. Perhaps reported cases are down (for numerous reasons that I won’t get to much into)– but I’ve taken numerous cases of armed robberies since the crisis has officially “ended”. Many feel they can’t get justice or fear they will be further abused by the FRCI forces if they report crimes (rightly or wrongly so). Many have also been looted or abused by the FRCI forces themselves since the crisis (mostly in the early days), and so are reluctant to trust these forces to help them in any way.

    I certainly don’t envy Ouattara’s job at the moment, I think he’s in a very precarious place of having to appease those who have helped him get into power, while keeping his promises of reconciliation. It will not be an easy road. There is a lot of signs of revitalization in the streets. Some of the roads are getting fixed, or at least the bumpers on the side of the road are getting painted. There are cleaning crews out in large numbers.

    However, many have been recently angered at the demolitions of illegal businesses that are happening around the city. Many streets are almost unrecognizable after thousands of businesses that were built on city property (the sides of the streets) or not paying taxes or without permits were rapidly torn down, leaving many without jobs and their assets destroyed. It seemed an ill time for such a move, and was perhaps best left for a year or so from now when the anger is not so fresh from the fighting.

    There is also a problem for a lot of returning refugees or displaced persons. They are afraid to return. Their homes are no longer in heavily mixed communities, forcing them into other communities that are more ethnically friendly to them. Their homes have been occupied. Many have returned only to find water and electricity companies extorting money they can ill afford for usage during their time gone. Their possessions all gone. Lack of work. Lots of problems.

    There are a lot of angry and upset people still, though I’d say that the vast majority of civilians just want peace. Just want to find work, feed their families, send their kids to school and have a beer on the weekend. Investment seems to be coming strong, so there is hope that new jobs will be created and people can begin to live normal lives again, but this crisis is far from over yet.

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