As Libya erupts into civil war, so, too, does Cote d’Ivoire. Yesterday, for the first time, military units controlled by the rival Ivorian presidents, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, fought in the streets of Abidjan. At the same time, Ouattara’s military, the Forces Nouvelles, occupied a few small, non-strategic villages that have been under the control of Gbagbo, thereby breaching the ceasefire line that emerged out of the last round of civil war. Gbagbo and Ouattara’s rival governments remain in Abidjan, at least for the time being, though the city is under the former’s control and the latter is dependent on the protection of UN forces. Should Ouattara’s government evacuate to its traditional stronghold of Bouake in the north, the country would be split in two, with almost certainly the resumption of full-scale civil war.
Once the most developed country in West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire today is bitterly divided between “indigenes” (mostly Christian or animist) and “settlers” (mostly Muslim), with the former predominate in the southern, more developed part of the country, and the latter in the north. There are also numerous cross-cutting ethnic divisions. A civil war that started a decade ago has never been resolved. Gbagbo presents himself as the champion of the “indigenes,” and Ouattara of the “settlers.”
The November presidential elections, far from reuniting Cote d’Ivoire, have exacerbated existing divisions. While not perfect, the elections were regarded as credible by the international community, and Ouattara won. Nevertheless, Gbagbo has not budged, and he continues to draw on important sources of domestic strength. Thus far the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and sanctions from the principal Western countries have been insufficient to force Gbagbo out.
The Ivorian experience sets a poor example for the numerous elections taking place in Africa this year, ranging from Nigeria to Zimbabwe. If Gbagbo can remain in power with significant domestic support in a badly divided country, other incumbent losers in presidential elections may be tempted to follow the same playbook.