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Why moves to cut off Gbagbo's funds couldn't prevent war in Ivory Coast

President-elect Alassane Ouattara's plan was to rally the international community to cut off Ivory Coast's finances so renegade incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo would be forced to surrender.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / April 5, 2011

New Forces soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara drive at a checkpoint at one of the principal entrances to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tuesday. Ivory Coast's entrenched strongman Laurent Gbagbo huddled in a bunker at his home and was exploring different options for his surrender, officials said Tuesday, as forces backing the country's democratically elected leader seized the residence.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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Dakar, Senegal

Ivory Coast may be hours from the end of a conflict that was never supposed to be fought.

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Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's government is negotiating a surrender, according to his spokesman. His three top generals have all turned themselves in to the United Nations after UN helicopters attacked their arms depot and several other positions. And Mr. Gbagbo himself is – as of this writing – sitting in a bunker below the presidential residence, which has been taken by opposing troops.

Hundreds have died in the past week as forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara launched a lightning offensive against Gbagbo's forces after waiting more than four months for a political solution that never came.

But why did it come to this? Gbagbo was supposed to be forced out long ago, after coordinated efforts to block the money he needed to fund his military support.

When Gbagbo refused to accept defeat after the Nov. 28 election, preferring instead to deploy soldiers and militia onto the streets of the country's main city, Abidjan, Mr. Ouattara could have called on the support of the country's rebel armies based in the north. Instead, the former International Monetary Fund economist called the Central Bank.

Ouattara's plan was to rally the international community to cut off Ivory Coast's finances so Gbagbo would be forced to surrender.

The Central Bank would block Gbagbo from borrowing money or funding his government – forcing him to live off of portside cocoa taxes and fees extorted by soldiers.

Then, international ships would cruise past the ports of Ivory Coast – the world's top cocoa producer – to buy cocoa in neighboring Ghana so that Gbabgo's renegade regime could no longer profit from the trade. European chocolatiers would stick to non-Ivoirian ingredients.

These measures were supposed to avoid a slide back into the country's 2002-03 civil war, and preserve Ouattara's moral authority.

Flaws in the plan

But there were flaws in the plan.

The Central Bank took two months – and ultimately had to fire its governor, a longtime friend of Gbagbo's – before it cut Gbagbo off. In the meantime, Gbagbo was able to withdraw money daily.

And as cocoa-funded militias claimed hundreds of lives in Abidjan, Coabisco, Europe's top cocoa makers' association, equivocated on the export ban, perhaps more worried about what its shareholders might say than possible violence they may not be able to prevent anyway.

Then there was Russia. The former Africa giant remains the biggest purchaser of Ivoirian gas and oil, which earned Gbagbo's government maybe even more than cocoa. When Ivory Coast's neighbors went to the UN Security Council to ask permission for a regional intervention to depose Gbagbo, Russia said no. Earlier, it blocked a statement recognizing Ouattara as president. As recently as this week, Russia condemned the military effort to oust Gbagbo.

Plan finally pays off

Eventually though, the sanctions strangled Gbagbo's government, and forced his soldiers to raid banks and the Abidjan stock market to find their pay. As early as February, Ouattara's entourage began dropping hints about mass defections in Gbagbo's army.

By the time forces loyal to Ouattara swept southward in last week's drive towards Abidjan, there was no one but mercenaries and holdouts left to fight.

"[Gbagbo] recruited mercenaries," Seydou Ouattara, the spokesman for the rebels, with no relation to Alassane Ouattara told the Associated Press. "He recruited militias. He essentially told the army: 'We have no confidence in you.' We were able to use this to our advantage. In each town, we told the soldiers, we are your brothers. We want the same thing."

Unfortunately for the hundreds of civilians killed in recent days, however, the efforts to financially cripple Gbabgo's regime required military action to succeed in forcing his surrender.

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