Ivory Coast violence escalates as mediation efforts stall

A resurgence of violence in Ivory Coast this weekend put a hold on African Union mediation efforts, but African leaders continue to resist international efforts to intervene further.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Women pray as they face off against soldiers in an unauthorized protest calling for Laurent Gbagbo to step down, in the Treichville neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, Feb. 28.

An African Union team of five heads of state, charged with resolving the political crisis in Ivory Coast, seems to be extending its stay in the country beyond Tuesday as violence between the two well-armed sides increases and the chances of peaceful negotiation rapidly diminish.

At least 300 people have been killed since the crisis began after the Nov. 28 election runoff between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Allasane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner. Ivory Coast’s election commission declared Mr. Ouattara the victor by a 10 percentage-point margin, but Mr. Gbagbo rejected the results.

The constitutional court threw out a half-million votes in pro-Ouattara areas, and now some African leaders, such as African Union mediation team member South African President Jacob Zuma, have called the election results “inconclusive.”

Mr. Zuma initially proposed a powersharing agreement followed later by fresh elections. But as fighting spreads through the country, all talk of a powersharing agreement appears to be off the table.

Escalating the standoff's 'tit-for-tat' moves

Fresh gun battles, the latest in on-and-off violence ongoing since the election, erupted in the capital of Abidjan this weekend and front-line neighborhoods supportive of Ouattara have nearly emptied of residents. The United Nations reports that Gbagbo recently purchased attack helicopters from Belarus, a blatant violation of an arms embargo placed on Ivory Coast since the end of the country’s civil war in 2004.

The possession of helicopters would greatly tilt the balance of military power toward Gbagbo, since neither side currently has aircraft. Attack helicopters would potentially give Gbagbo the ability to attack Ouattara’s headquarters in the Golf Hotel and to inflict heavy casualties on civilian demonstrators.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement Sunday night condemning the reported arms sale to Gbagbo. The UN “has learned with deep concern that three attack helicopters and related materiel from Belarus are reportedly being delivered at Yamoussoukro for Mr. Gbagbo's forces,” Mr. Ban said in a statement. "This is a serious violation of the embargo against Cote d'Ivoire, which has been in place since 2004."

“Obviously, we are quite concerned about those helicopters being used against the Golf Hotel and against Abobo neighborhood,” says Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher on West Africa for Human Rights Watch in Dakar, Senegal. “The helicopters make a breach of the arms control agreement and it gives Gbagbo the upper hand.”

Belarus has supplied vintage Soviet-era attack helicopters to other African nations in the past, most notably Uganda in the late 1990s to be used against the rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The arrival of helicopters is just the latest in a series of tit-for-tat moves by the two rival factions. By most accounts, Gbagbo is rapidly running out of money and cannot pay the salaries of his soldiers. Foreign governments have cut off his access to the government's foreign bank accounts, and foreign-owned banks based in Ivory Coast have shut their doors.

Ouattara, by contrast, has full access to the country’s assets and, as the recognized winner of the elections, is the only leader eligible to receive aid money from the African Union, the United Nations, and most rich donor nations.

Mediation efforts are stalled

The African Union panel's mediation efforts seem to be stalled by the heavy fighting, which began the day the panel members arrived. With both sides fighting in the streets of Abidjan, at times with heavy artillery shelling of residential neighborhoods and attacks on the president-elect's hotel, neither side appears to be in a talking or a negotiating mood.

But African Union leaders insist on coming up with an “African solution to an African problem.” There seems to be little appetite for intervention from the United Nations or richer Western nations.

“Clearly the stakes have changed now. The AU panel was supposed to go to Nouackchott to hammer out a report on the plans for a negotiated agreement, but that is now taken over by events. The research they have done has to be revised," Ms. Dufka says.

Even if he has access to the country's assets, Ouattara remains cut off from most of the functioning ministries of government and is holed up in his headquarters in Abidjan, which is surrounded by UN peacekeeping forces. Gbagbo retains control of the south of the country, while the Forces Nouvelles, aligned with Ouattara, control the north. The battle lines are being drawn again along familiar civil-war lines.

Ouattara’s spokesman in Pretoria, Patrice Mallet, says more pressure needs to be put on Gbagbo and those who are supporting him, or the country will descend once more into full civil war.

“The fact is, right now, violence is escalating – the ‘Young Patriots’ loyal to Gbagbo are being merciless,” says Mr. Mallet. “You’ll remember that on the day the Africa Union presidents arrived, peaceful protestors were being killed by heavy artillery. We don’t understand why Gbagbo’s forces needed to use heavy artillery against peaceful protestors. I’m really worried about the direction this conflict is taking.”

South Africa takes the reins

At the forefront of the “African solution” brigade is South Africa, which has increasingly carved out a foreign policy independent from that of most Western nations, and one that plays on South Africa’s historic role as a defender of the oppressed.

Speaking at a press conference before Zuma’s trip to Ivory Coast, Foreign Affairs Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Cape Town that the AU delegation would go beyond its original fact-finding mission and attempt to mediate the crisis, at the invitation of both sides.

“While we respect the views of our friends outside the Continent, we also would love to appreciate that they know that Africans would rather be given an opportunity to deal with African problems, supported by the friends outside the Continent, but that the solution mainly has to come from African leaders themselves,” Ms. Mashabane said.

Noting that Zuma would visit French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris after his Ivory Coast trip, Mashabane added, “President Zuma will not decline from sharing whatever information that President Sarkozy will be interested in. But, primarily, Africans are very keen to deal with African problems.”

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