Former president Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast has lost political power and now seeks the power of martyrdom. Skillful diplomacy, backed by military muscle, is required to deny his death wish intended to destroy president Alassane Ouattara’s chances to govern, and Ivory Coast’s prospects for peace. How can the end game for Gbagbo be shaped to offer a brighter future for all Ivorians?
The diplomacy following Ouattara’s November 2010 election victory and Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish power was textbook. Gbagbo was first offered incentives to do the right thing, and then isolated via a travel ban and suspension from regional and international fora for continued intransigence. Several envoys from West Africa and the African Union tried negotiations to resolve the impasse but met with failure. Pressure escalated to deny him an economic lifeline with the freezing of the assets of Gbagbo, his family, and entourage both bilaterally and eventually multilaterally under the United Nations Security Council Resolution of 1975. The same resolution authorized the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) to use force to protect civilians as originally mandated in 2004 under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1528. Finally force—UNOCI backed by French forces as well as forces loyal to Ouattara—was necessary to shake Gbagbo’s grip on power. (Photo by Sunset Parkerpix on Flickr, of Ivorian refugees.)
Now that Gbagbo is dug into the presidential residence refusing to leave, what next?
First, the Obama Administration needs to step up and show leadership. France’s forceful backing of the close to 10,000 UNOCI troops was a necessary game changer. Still, a more neutral country than France is needed to facilitate Gbagbo’s exit to end the conflict. The United States should urge and support South Africa providing refuge to Gbagbo, including either or both countries convincing him to swap his martyr’s wish for their providing secure escort out of Abidjan. Gbagbo can take up ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide’s former residence in Pretoria and position as a research fellow at the University of South Africa. The condition of his exile should be that leaving South Africa will land him at The Hague or before a court of judgment in Ivory Coast. The United States should speak directly to Gbagbo to provide clarity on his diminishing options, including a reality check about precision “bunker-busting” munitions.
Second, President Ouattara should maintain a military siege around the presidential residence but should stop assaults that threaten innocent civilians. It is time for Ouattara to lead, to appear presidential, and to take up the reigns of governing. Forget about Gbagbo acknowledging his defeat in writing. The only legitimacy needed to govern is the people’s vote. Leave Gbagbo in his hole. Over time, he may be treated to the same fate as besieged Ivorians, out of food and sustenance. Most importantly, Ouattara must quickly and decisively reach out to Gbagbo’s supporters and deserting troops. Make clear that there will be no witch hunt. Start now to dialogue with potential cabinet ministers and government officials. Bring onboard those necessary for real national reconciliation and healing as well as those capable of delivering accountable and competent governance.
Third, UNOCI, backed by French forces, must maintain its resolve to end the conditions in Abidjan and throughout the country, that continue to threaten civilian lives. Any militia, paid or partisan, should be engaged with lethal intent before they can move into position to threaten or attack civilians. Already, it took too long before UNOCI exercised its Chapter Seven peace enforcement mandate to protect civilians and promote and protect human rights, especially of children and women. While the international community dithered, more than 1,000 Ivorians lost their lives and hundreds of thousands have been displaced and made refugees.
It is especially time for the Obama Administration to use the “unique diplomatic capabilities” of the United States to end the crisis. The George W. Bush Administration never armed a rebel in Africa, yet, helped end six “intractable” wars and many crises, including the 2002 Ivory Coast conflict, by relying on skilled diplomacy working with African leaders. South Africa and the United States must take the stage now to stop Gbagbo’s last stance trying to take all of Ivory Coast down with him. Now is the time to move beyond talk to make the United States–South Africa Strategic Dialogue a meaningful tool of multilateral diplomacy.
Jendayi E. Frazer is a featured blogger on Africa.com, focusing on U.S. policy and governance in Africa. She is the Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.