Following the second round of the presidential run-off election on 28 November 2010, Côte d’Ivoire has been gripped by a post-election crisis with serious risks of conflict, which, if breaks out, is likely to be more brutal than the 2002-2003 civil war. The dangerous political standoff in the country arose following the refusal of the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to accept the result of the election as affirmed by the Electoral Commission. What makes the situation particularly dangerous is that the two sides are backed by military force.
General Philippe Mangou, head of the national armed forces, has declared that President Gbagbo has the full support of the army. On their part, former rebels of the New Forces controlling the northern part of the country since September 2002, have thrown their weight behind Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara. The risk for a return to civil war is very high and with each passing day without a resolution to the crisis the political divisions in the country are deepening.
While much attention and effort is put into convincing Gbagbo to surrender power with dignity, the risks of ongoing and potential violations of human rights, including the perpetration of mass atrocity crimes such as genocide has not received as much attention. As such it is imperative that protection of civilians from mass atrocities is also equally prioritised.
In a show of exceptional unity, international actors both within and outside Africa expressed their recognition of Ouattara as the winner of the election and urged Gbagbo to leave office. . While this is very crucial in ensuring that the will of the people is honoured and rule of law is duly established, it has eclipsed other dimensions of the crisis, most notably the risk of the perpetration of mass atrocities such as crimes against humanity.
During the month of December, there have been serious incidents of violence in various parts of the country. On 16 December, government security forces loyal to Gbagbo opened fire on opposition supporters protesting in Abidjan, killing at least 20 people and injuring unknown numbers. According to UN sources, The post-election violence has claimed the lives of at least 210 people and more than 22,000 fled to neighbouring countries. There have also been reports of clashes between the military supporting Gbagbo and former rebels of the New Forces including in the commercial capital Abijan.
Many human rights organisations, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, have expressed their concern over the alarming human rights situation. The human rights violations are not limited to killings and mass movement of population into neighboring countries. Human rights organisations have pointed to a series of abductions in similar circumstances, with victims subsequently reported missing or found dead.
It is not the mere occurrence of violence that makes the prevailing situation in Côte d’Ivoire susceptible to the commission of mass atrocities such as crimes against humanity. It is rather the context in which the violence is occurring and the nature of the political division in the country. Gbagbo and Ouattara personify to a large extent the divisions in the country between the largely Christian South and the predominantly Muslim North, which has since 2002 been controlled by the former rebel group New Forces. There is also a socio-economic dimension to the North-South division of the country. The country`s agricultural resources, particularly the cocoa plantations that make Côte d’Ivoire the wealthiest country in West Africa, are mainly in the south. Additionally, most of Côte d’Ivoire’s development is in the southeast and coastal belt, so these areas enjoy greater economic advantages than the north and west. As both the first round and the run-off elections showed, the voting pattern in many ways reflects this north-south divide in the country. While Gbagbo received major support in the South, Ouattara dominated the votes in the North.
It is important to note that the existence of ethnic tension by itself alone does not signify an impending mass atrocity. It is the existence of such other additional factors including ethnic/regional polarisation that continues to deepen due to the current stalemate; propagation of hate speech; xenophobic militia groups including the so-called ‘Young Patriots’; the occurrence of mob-violence and refugee flows that make Cote d’Ivoire susceptible to witness mass atrocity crimes.
The dangers of mass killings are further reinforced by previous instances of mass killings. In December 2000, supporters of Ouattara took to the streets protesting against his disqualification from contesting the presidential election and calling for new elections. The clash that ensued when paramilitary gendarme and police, along with the FPI mobs, tried to stop protestors, resulted in the death of several hundred people. This includes the massacre of 57 northerners in Yopougon, a suburb of Abidjan.
During the civil war, when government forces retook the town of Daola from rebel forces, as many as 100 Dioula youth supporting the rebels were found brutally killed, while in Monoko-Zohi, a village the bodies of 120 villagers were found in a mass grave-- apparently victims of government soldiers who had gone from house to house with lists of rebel sympathizers. Similar incidents of brutality took place in Abijan in November 2004.
The threat of mass atrocity crimes comes not only and necessarily from the military supporting Gbagbo or the former rebel group New Forces. It may rather come from armed militia groups particularly the ultra-nationalist ‘Patriotic Youth’ groups and other ethnic militias in various parts of the country such as the in volatile west. It suffices to recall the events of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, in which most of the atrocities were carried out by militias and criminal gangs. As from UN commander in Rwanda Roméo Dallaire noted during the genocide, the main danger to his personnel and civilians came from what he called a “third force” of aggressive/brazen militia” who displayed “no particular respect for anybody and essentially work to their own unruly/drunk/drugged tune.” These were, he noted, “a very large and dangerous and totally irrational group of people.”
The militias supporting Gbagbo such as the Patriotic Youth group not only swore to accept no winner other than Gbagbo but also threatened to attack the opposition. The situation is further complicated by the involvement of Liberian mercenaries. It was reported that these mercenaries were involved in the December 16 brutal attack against demonstrating Ouattara supporters. There are already reports of extra-judicial killings, mass grave, assault and disappearances as well as mass arrest of individuals suspected of supporting Ouattara. It is the existence of this context that makes the risk of a return to civil war more dangerous. Indeed, as the ongoing refugee flow show, the effect of such war will not be limited to Côte d’Ivoire. It will have a knock-on effect on the whole sub-region endangering in particular the stability of Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries themselves emerging from atrocious conflicts.
The above clearly reveals that the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire is more than a dispute over the result of the presidential election. As such, it is a situation that ECOWAS and the AU PSC need to declare as presenting a serious threat to regional peace and security. It is also this that offers ECOWAS stronger legal, political and moral grounds to justify its threat of the use of ‘legitimate force’ to oust Gbagbo. Both leaders and particularly Gbagbo should recall that it is the primary responsibility of Côte d’Ivoire to protect the population from mass atrocities. Both the AU PSC and ECOWAS would serve their mandate well by making a formal declaration not only as to the threat that the situation represents to regional peace and security,but also the responsibility of the leaders to bear criminal liability. The leaders need to be reminded that they will be criminally liable not only for violations perpetrated by those under their command but also by those groups acting in their support. There is also a need for the AU and ECOWAS to denounce the use of the media for propaganda purposes, inciting the population to hatred and violence. They should call on both leaders to direct their supporters to refrain from inciting and perpetrating violence.
The Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has signaled the ICC`s interest in and concern about developments in Côte d`Ivoire. UNOCI has also taken initiatives not only for investigating reported violations but also to monitor emerging human rights violations in Cote d’Ivoire. But the mission faces obstruction from Gbagbo’s military and supporters in its efforts to pursue its protection of civilians mandate. ECOWAS and the AU can play a critical part in facilitating the role of these various entities. Apart from their efforts to achieve a negotiated removal of Gbagbo, both should and can demand Gbagbo to cooperate unconditionally with UNOCI in its efforts to achieve its mandate including the investigation of alleged violations.
These and other measures that are necessary to ensure the protection of civilians will guarantee that the danger that the current situation in Cote d’Ivoire presents in terms of the perpetration of mass atrocities is properly and visibly integrated in Africa’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.
Written by Solomon A Dersso, Senior Researcher with Peace and Security Council Report Programme, ISS Addis Ababa