[DAKAR] Cote d’Ivoire’s crisis, triggered by a contested presidential election in November, continues to defy local and international mediation, with the situation muddied by contradictory headlines, and hints of diplomatic breakthroughs that seem based more on conjecture than reality.
“We have seen so many communiqués and resolutions come and go that we don’t even read them now”, an Ivoirian civil society activist told IRIN from Abidjan. “You still don’t get any sense of concrete action”.
Two men, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, are laying claim to the presidency, with Gbagbo refusing to yield to international pressure to step down. After more than 40 days of deadlock, there is mounting criticism from Ivoirians over the mediation process, as their own problems deepen.
The brief optimism from the last African Union (AU)-Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mission on 3 January has dissipated.
Gbagbo’s “offer” to lift the blockade of his rival’s hotel headquarters came with conditions Ouattara could not accept, and hopes of a meeting between the two proved unrealistic. Ouattara has since talked about a “commando solution” as being the best way to force Gbagbo from office, telling reporters “there are non-violent special operations which allow simply to take the unwanted person and take him elsewhere."
ECOWAS mediators are left with the prospect of another meeting, while their military counterparts still have a military intervention option on the table, ready to be discussed at a gathering in Bamako, Mali, on 17-18 January.
Both in West African capitals and the United States and Europe, military force is still being presented as a last resort. Ghanaian President John Atta Mills has gone further stating in a speech that "I personally do not think the military option will solve the problem in Ivory Coast”.
“Even the mouth and tongue do quarrel, so also do husband and wife”, ECOWAS chairman, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, told reporters after digesting feedback from the AU-ECOWAS delegation. But the dividends from regional diplomacy have so far been extremely modest.
The US Treasury Department’s move to clamp down on Gbagbo’s financial operations in the US, coupled with the refusal of the United Kingdom and Canada to pull out their ambassadors as requested suggests the Baraka Obama administration and others may be ready for a more muscular approach.
In recent interviews, Ouattara has warned that his patience and that of his supporters is running out and has suggested the prompt arrival of an investigations team from the International Criminal Court (ICC) would be appropriate, asserting that “Gbagbo has blood on his hands”. The ICC has made it clear that it has been monitoring Côte d’Ivoire with interest, but has yet to confirm any mission.
The most recent episodes of violence have been out in the west, notably in Duékoué, where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed 14 deaths in recent inter-communal violence that revived memories of other serious confrontations in the same area during the past decade. While Duékoué is now reported to be calm, there are concerns of a dangerous knock-on effect in other parts of the west.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, ordinary citizens are quick to voice their frustration and uncertainty.
Tidjane Touré, 34, a student at Abidjan’s Cocody University, says he hasn’t returned to campus since participating in a march the opposition called on 16 December.
“Everybody knows I was at the march. Today one political party is arming its supporters to fight against the other, so you have to watch your words. The policemen abducting people from their houses at night don’t know their victims. It’s someone near you who knows your opinion that leads them to your house. So there is fear, even amongst those we have known all our lives.”
One 41-year-old man who fled his village in the west to Abidjan during the 2002 conflict had hoped to go back, but not now:
“My dream was to return after the elections. But what’s the point? So long as there’s no peace in Abidjan, there is no unity in this country. It has made us bitter - waiting eight years - and these last six weeks have turned all the hope of eight years to ash, to nothing. The politicians don’t care about us, when all we want is peace.”
A 38-year old local journalist in Abidjan says discretion is crucial for survival now:
“It’s not prudent to go about speaking your opinions these days. We’ve seen that Gbagbo doesn’t care if he has to burn down the country in order to remain in power. Our eyes are clear now: that is how the politicians are, but we wanted to at least give another one a chance. But Ouattara is powerless, too. He hasn’t inspired people yet because we have seen how ruthless his opponent is, but maybe when the impasse starts to choke us we will have no choice but to take to the streets.”
In the interior, people talk of the same frustration and uncertainty. A cocoa farmer in Daloa, 400km northwest of Abidjan:
“For three days I’ve had to sleep outside this cocoa warehouse. We sold our beans before the elections, and [the owner] promised us we would receive our money once the elections had passed because then there would be peace. Now I find myself sleeping like a homeless person outside this.