'Genocide' in Ivory Coast: A real threat, or just politics?

Wednesday's 'genocide' warning from an ally of Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara has enough elements of truth in it to worry observers.

Sunday Alamba/AP
UN Peacekeepers patrol a street in Abdijian, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday. Supporters of the country's President-elect Alassane Ouattara say the country is on the brink of genocide due to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to give up his office.

Could incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to cede power to President-elect Alassane Ouattara after apparently losing the Nov. 28 Ivory Coast run-off really lead to genocide?

That was the claim made by Youssofou Bamba, Ivory Coast's new ambassador to the United Nations, after presenting his credentials to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Wednesday. Mr. Ouattara has been recognized worldwide as the winner of the presidential election and Mr. Bamba is his appointee to the UN post.

Referring to the increasingly volatile political crisis in the West African nation, Bamba said "we are on the brink of genocide" and appeared to appeal for international help, saying "something must be done."

Given the violent recent past of Africa's Great Lakes region, particularly in Rwanda, the words "Africa" and "genocide" in the same sentence are taken seriously. And it looks increasingly likely that Gbagbo loyalists are going to use violence in their effort to hold on to power.

A Saturday siege?

Charles Ble Goude, officially the youth minister under Gbagbo but whose real power comes from his position as a commander of the incumbent president's street level supporters, called today for a Saturday assault on Ouattara and his closest supporters, who are holed up in an Abidjan hotel under UN protection.

"I, Charles Ble Goude, and the youth of Ivory Coast, are going to liberate the Golf Hotel with our bare hands," he told a throng of agitated supporters, according to Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Ble Goude, who was placed under UN sanctions in 2006 for his leadership of political gangs that allegedly used targeted rape and murder to cow opponents in 2004, has been ratcheting up the rhetoric recently.

"Playtime is over," he said in an ominous statement earlier this week.

'Hate media'

Violent calls in the Ivorian media have increased after Gbagbo seized control of the airwaves in the wake of the vote.

Observers have long warned that "hate media" could lead to widespread violence in the country.

In a 2006 visit to Ivory Coast, then UN Emergency Coordinator Jan Egeland warned that "hate media in a Rwandan style asks for attacks against defenseless civilians, for minorities being chopped up and for international humanitarian organizations to be attacked, people should be brought to justice."

Such calls are again being made this week.

A UN worker was injured in a machete attack on Tuesday, and the organization once more pointed toward the local press.

UN peacekeeping head Alain Le Roy said earlier this week that the machete attack was a "direct consequence of all the appeals to hatred, lies, and [anti-UN] propaganda" carried on state broadcaster RTI, still-controlled by Gbagbo.

Gbagbo on Dec. 18 ordered UN peacekeepers to leave Ivory Coast, calling them "agents of destabilization."

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