Ivory Coast: Fears the country is sliding into civil war

The Guardian

On Tuesday four people were killed during a women's protest march against Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo. Last week, another all-women march through the capital Abidjan, in support of the internationally recognised president of the country, was directly fired upon by troops loyal to Gbagbo and seven women peacefully exercising their democratic right of public assembly were killed.

There are multiple tragedies unfolding in the increasingly desperate and dangerous situation in Ivory Coast. Many international bodies, including the United Nations, now see the situation as close to civil war. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of December; some 70,000 Ivorians have fled across the border to Liberia; in Abobo, a suburb of the capital, 200,000 people have deserted their homes following violence against them.

Just this weekend, a violent militia loyal to Gbagbo, the "Young Patriots", targeted and assaulted supporters of the internationally recognised president, Alassane Ouattara, and looted and torched properties, including my own. Since November, we members of his cabinet have been holed up in the Golf Hotel, surrounded by Gbagbo militias. It is agonising to know that while we've been unable to get to our homes, they have been destroying them.

These attacks are fuelled by language that is undeniably racial and raises the possibility that broader, organised attacks on specific ethnic groups – such as the world has seen in Rwanda and Zimbabwe – are being considered. This manmade disaster is not just a catastrophe for Ivory Coast, but for the country's neighbours, such as Liberia, which, recovering from its own civil war, is ill-equipped to deal with such vast and sudden numbers of refugees.

The presidential election last November saw Ouattara elected by 10 percentage points in a poll lauded as free and fair and certified by the UN. It was intended to conclude the long negotiations towards a peaceful and democratic settlement for the country after years of civil war. The president throughout this process was Gbagbo: it was meant to be his chapter in this historic story, win or lose. But Gbagbo has been unable to countenance the fact that he lost, and his chapter is now increasingly likely to end in an international court rather than lauded in the memories of Ivorians.

The fear in Ivory Coast is that now, without international intervention, it may not be possible to halt the slide to a civil war. The International Crisis Group has warned that such a conflict is likely to lead to massive violence against citizens, with neighbouring countries drawn in.

The responsibility to halt a potential civil war lies, firstly, with theEconomic Community of West African States (Ecowas). Yet there is the fear that citizens of other west African states, millions of whom live in Ivory Coast, could be targeted by Gbagbo loyalists if their leaders continue to be vocal in supporting Ouattara.

But the fallout if Ecowas does not intervene is likely to be even greater; its leaders must remain resolute in their call for Gbagbo to stand aside.

There is now no possibility of a government of national unity, or a settlement in which Gbagbo himself is allowed to remain head of the nation. His actions since the election disbar him completely.

There have been moves by South Africa, as part of the African Unionnegotiating team, to agree a unity government including Gbagbo similar to that imposed on Zimbabwe in 2008. If this approach was unacceptable after such a decisive election win by Ouattara in November, it is even more unacceptable now, following the escalation of unrest and the killing of civilians.

The international community must also be more decisive. The UN has forces in Ivory Coast yet is struggling to hold off attacks on civilians, so must consider bolstering its presence. France, Ivory Coast's former colonial power, must consider a military solution, as Britain did in Sierra Leone in 2000. Unlike in Libya, where military intervention considerations are complicated by the lack of Nato or other forces in place, the French have military already in Ivory Coast, making any action by them far more credible and logistically feasible. Given how France has been pilloried by the international media and its own civil society for its links to the former regimes in north Africa, the French government in concert with its EU allies can restore its reputation through undertaking to impose order in Ivory Coast.

Without decisive international intervention there is little hope for the citizens of our country, and as each day goes by the descent into civil war becomes less unthinkable. Neither Ecowas, nor the African Union, nor France, nor the EU can afford to fail to act. And the people of Ivory Coast cannot afford civil war.