Ivory Coast's Former President Laurent Gbagbo was arrested today in a joint raid by French forces and fighters loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara, French embassy officials in Abidjan have confirmed.
The operation came after weeks of fighting and a weeklong siege of Mr. Gbagbo, who barricaded himself in the bunker under his presidential palace, refusing to cede the presidency. The heavy fighting kept most civilians indoors and created food and water shortages, leading to a sharp deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Abidjan. Security also deteriorated, as fighters on both sides took to looting and banditry.
After emerging from his bunker, Gbagbo was brought to the Golf Hotel, which Mr. Ouattara set up as the de facto government headquarters. A French military spokesman told the Associated Press that no French forces were involved in the arrest.
While Mr. Gbagbo’s arrest is a major milestone in Ouattara’s attempt to assume his position as president – which he won in elections certified by the United Nations, the African Union, and other election observer teams – it is unlikely to mean an immediate end to fighting.
Forces loyal to Gbagbo seem to have already slipped beyond his control in the past few days. Gbagbo denied ordering an attack on UN peacekeepers on April 2 and one on the Golf Hotel, also a major UN base, on April 9. Those attacks are suspected of provoking the UN and French forces to intervene forcefully against Gbagbo’s heavy weapons.
"The attack on the Gulf Hotel says one of two things about Gbagbo: either he lost control of a large part of his fighting force, or he realized that if he said he was responsible for the attack it would be the pretext for a full attack on his arsenal,” says Richard Moncrieff, a West Africa researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. “He denied responsibility, but in any case, that was his last mistake.”
The fighting in Ivory Coast, which reached the level of a full scale civil war the past few weeks, was sparked by the disputed results of a runoff election held Nov. 28, 2010. The international community and much of Africa accepted the official results in which Gbagbo won 46 percent of the vote, but Gbagbo’s supporters claimed vote rigging and attempted to have half a million votes in pro-Ouattara areas struck from the voting rolls.
The African Union and numerous other delegations attempted to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but neither side would accept the other’s presence at the negotiating table. Forces loyal to Ouattara lost patience as the stalemate dragged on, and eventually they went on the offensive, sweeping rapidly from their northern strongholds to the crucial port of San Pedro, to the capital of Yamousoukoro and on to Abidjan, the country's commercial center.
Today’s capture “may take the steam out of the base of support around Gbagbo, but it doesn’t preclude fighting by forces who are no longer under Gbagbo’s control,” says Mr. Moncrieff, who has covered Ivorian politics extensively over the past decade. “What’s going to happen next is a real puzzle,” Moncrieff adds.
“Is Ouattara in any position to imprison him [Gbagbo] or hold him? Will the international community attempt to prosecute him for war crimes? Several countries were offering Gbagbo asylum not too long ago. Is that offer still open?”