Racked with post-election violence and on the verge of economic meltdown, Côte d’Ivoire appears to be lurching towards the second civil war in a decade
From the balcony of her sixth-floor apartment in Abidjan, Toumata Tougma saw the armoured vehicle roll into the northern suburb of Abobo. “It happened in slow motion. There was a noise of explosions, people started screaming and running,” the 38-year-old seamstress recounts. “One woman was screaming after a bullet pierced her shoulder.” By the end of the day on 3 March, residents say at least six women had been killed. Several hundred women had gathered to protest against Laurent Gbagbo, who is clinging to power four months after losing a UN-certified election.
The UN says at least 346 people have been killed in post-electoral violence and warns that Côte d’Ivoire is lurching towards a resumption of the 2002 civil war. The UN said that at least 26 people were killed overnight in Abobo, a stronghold of support for the president-elect Alassane Ouattara that was the scene of intense fighting in early March. The latest killing comes amid weeks of intensified violence in Abidjan and the west. Forces loyal to Ouattara took three towns in the western region, including Toulepleu, in the days leading up to 6 March.
At a summit in Nigeria on 24 March, leaders of the West African regional body ECOWAS said UN peackeepers already in Côte d’Ivoire should have a tougher mandate to remove Gbagbo from power. Off the back of its diplomatic sucess at securing support at the UN for a no-fly-zone over Libya, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy indicated that it would propose a new UN resolution on Côte d’Ivoire to forbid the use of heavy arms in Abidjan.
The army has begun using heavy arms in Abobo and elsewhere in Abidjan as it struggles to quell what seems to be a growing insurgency. Locals have nicknamed the mysterious forces who back Ouattara’s claim to presidency the “invisible commandos”. Even the army has occasionally resorted to calling them that as it struggles to pin down the identity of the well-organised and well-supplied force.
The reaffirmation of the north-south split looks increasingly inevitable. The Forces Nouvelles de Côte d’Ivoire (FNCI) rebels, who are Ouattara loyalists, have maintained their hold over the north since the beginning of the 2002 conflict. On 28 February armed Gbagbo loyalists entered the national power grid company and ordered the closure of electricity to the north of the country.
Gbagbo is also facing economic meltdown. An exodus of international banks – labelled by his government as “purely criminal and racist” – has caused difficulties in meeting a $120m civil service wage bill. Meanwhile, economic activity has ground to a halt. Mountains of cocoa beans, which account for 40% of the world’s supply, are rotting in warehouses as exporters respect a Ouattara-backed embargo. Exporters say they are being taxed by Gbagbo – who is tapping into any potential funding sources – for beans they cannot export. “We have no choice but to smuggle them out, otherwise how will we eat?” cocoa farmer Issis Doumbia says.
The end of March is a crunch time for paying salaries, with many expecting Gbagbo not to be able to meet his multiple obligations. There are reports of machetes being distributed to both sides and a steady flood of Ivorians are crossing the border into Ghana and other neighbouring countries.
Gbagbo has now banned UN flights from Ivorian airspace, something the UN say they will ignore. Were a plane to be shot down, the conflict would swiftly escalate.
A version of this article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report.
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