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Rebuilding Ivory Coast Will Be 'A Hell Of A Time'

Ivory Coast's then-president, Laurent Gbagbo, meets with rival Alassane Ouattara in May 2010, six months before the elections that would split the country. Now Gbagbo is holed up in a bunker, surrounded by forces loyal to Ouattara, the president-elect.
Ivory Coast's then-president, Laurent Gbagbo, meets with rival Alassane Ouattara in May 2010, six months before the elections that would split the country. Now Gbagbo is holed up in a bunker, surrounded by forces loyal to Ouattara, the president-elect.

Ivory Coast was once considered the most politically stable and prosperous state in West Africa.

But now, as Alassane Ouattara prepares to take over, he faces enormous challenges in restoring the economy and security to the country following months of post-election violence.

Ouattara, internationally recognized as the legitimate president of Ivory Coast, earned a majority of votes in the disputed Nov. 28 election. But former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.

"Even on Nov. 28, Ouattara would have been facing an almost evenly split electorate, and that split reflects ethnic divisions, regional divisions and, to some extent, religious divisions," says Dorina Bekoe, a program officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace. "After four months of violence and hundreds dead and a million displaced, that division is even more pronounced."

He wants to build up his country and move beyond the war. He'll have a hell of a time.

The nation's regional and ethnic divisions have sparked violence sporadically over the course of the past decade, but particularly so in the months since the election.

Gbagbo, who has been Ivory Coast's leader since 2000, rejected the results of the November election and remains holed up in an underground bunker in Abidjan, the country's leading city. Assuming Gbagbo eventually comes out, Ouattara will have to find a way of binding Ivory Coast's wounds in order to ensure that the present crisis marks an end to the nation's period of political violence, rather than serving as the wellspring of future disputes.

"There is a huge challenge in restoring public order in Abidjan," says Gilles Yabi, who directs the International Crisis Group's West Africa Project in Senegal. "In Abidjan, a lot of civilians have received weapons the last few weeks and those people will remain in place after Gbagbo is gone."

The Situation On The Ground

Ouattara's 54.1 percent win in last November's election has been certified by the country's election commission and recognized by international observers, including the United Nations and President Obama.

In dismissing the results, Gbagbo set off a period of violence that helped trigger sanctions from the international community. But over the past couple of weeks, military forces backing Ouattara have swept across much of the country, entering Abidjan last week.

Bekoe, the USIP program officer, says she worries about the precedent set by outside militaries using force to help resolve an electoral dispute. Still, with dozens of elections coming up in Africa this year, it was important to send a signal to other leaders that they cannot dismiss clear results and seek to retain power through violence, she says.

But Gbagbo is not a tyrant with no popular support. He won nearly half the votes in the election and he's long been able to exploit the schism between the country's regions, calling into the question the Ivoirite, or true nationality, of the more Muslim and immigrant-heavy northern population.

Even if Ouattara had been able to take power as a result of a peaceful transition, he would have needed to take steps to reassure Gbagbo's supporters that they would be treated fairly. Now, this will be essential in order to reunite the country.

"There has to be some effort at political reconciliation," Bekoe says. "Ouattara had said even before the election he'd be open to putting together a unity government, without Gbagbo. That is the approach the African Union has recommended. I think that's even more important now because I think it will be quite difficult to govern."

Investigating His Own Supporters

Any attempt at reconciliation will come in the wake of considerable violence, primarily perpetrated by Gbagbo in the weeks following the election and, more recently, by pro-Ouattara forces during their sweep across the country.

Ouattara has denied accusations from the U.N. that his supporters have massacred hundreds of civilians, including 800 people in the town of Duekoue.

"There's an awful lot of ethnic hatred and calling for revenge," says William Zartman, former head of Africa studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "As in any situation like this, people have lost relatives and will be harboring animosities."

Independent observers have not been able to investigate the situation throughout the country. But, with hundreds of thousands displaced, it's clear that there has been conflict on a massive scale.

"Ouattara should signal that it's not going to be a victor's justice — it's not going to be one-sided — and investigate pro-Ouattara crimes, as well as serious crimes committed by Gbagbo," says Philippe Bolopion, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

The Task Of Recovery

Bolopion warns that the temptation to gloss over allegations of violence and crimes in the name of reconciliation should be resisted. That's what happened during an earlier period of political violence that lasted roughly from 2002 to 2004, he says.

But even before deciding whether to investigate past crimes, Ouattara will have to restore security in Abidjan and much of the country. He also will need to get the economy going again, including resumption of exports of the all-important cocoa and coffee crops. Some reports on Thursday indicated Ouattara could lift the cocoa ban he called for in January within days.

"Economic activity has been almost paralyzed," says Yabi, the International Crisis Group director in West Africa. "It has suffered a lot because of the political climate, but also because of economic sanctions that were adopted by the international community."

People's desire to get back to work and resume their normal lives will help Ouattara settle the mood of the country, suggests Zartman, the SAIS scholar.

But, given deep disputes over land ownership and the legacy of political violence, it won't be easy.

"He wants to build up his country and move beyond the war," Zartman says. "He'll have a hell of a time."

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