Adam Nossiter, the West Africa Bureau Chief for The New York Times, describes the situation on the ground in Côte d’Ivoire, as post-election violence draws the nation into civil war.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Welcome to this month’s episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. With me today is Adam Nossiter, the West Africa Bureau Chief for The New York Times. Adam has been covering the post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire, and today joins us by phone from Europe. Adam, thank you for speaking with us today.
ADAM NOSSITER: My pleasure.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: So as far as now, the U.N. has recorded at least 365 deaths since mid-December in Côte d’Ivoire. Can you just give us a sense of the situation on the ground now?
ADAM NOSSITER: Well, it’s very tense, because you have one political leader who actually won the presidential election there last November, and you have another political leader who’s been holding the office of the presidency for ten years and now refuses to give it up, even though he lost. And that gentleman has at his disposal a considerable military and security apparatus, and he’s using it to maintain himself in power. He’s using it to beat back opposition by force. He’s using it to terrorize the neighborhoods that supported his opponent. And the other gentleman, who actually won the election, is blockaded in a hotel, in the main commercial city of Abidjan. And he has some military assets at his disposal as well, but they’re not as extensive as the other fellow’s. So it’s a very tense and, as you suggested in the opening, bloody situation.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Can you talk a little bit about the number of refugees who have left the country in the last two months?
ADAM NOSSITER: Well, the number is in dispute. But it’s probably over 100,000 at this point. Because in addition to the violence in the commercial capital, there’s also violence in the western part of the country, part of which is held by the rebels who launched a civil war in 2002, and part of which is loyal to the fellow who refuses to give up. So the rebels are trying to take back, or take for the first time, territory held by the incumbent. And they’re fighting the loyalist forces, and that’s, of course, not a good condition for the civilian population. So they’re leaving and they’re fleeing towards the west; Liberia generally. They’re fleeing across the border towards Liberia.
Inside Abidjan itself, there are some internal refugees too; tens of thousands of them. Nobody has a good number because Mr. Gbagbo’s forces regularly, as we suggested at the beginning, descend into these opposition neighborhoods and create havoc. So people are fleeing their homes.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Are there refugee camps that have cropped up along the border of Liberia?
ADAM NOSSITER: There are refugee camps in Liberia; yes there are, and there are international agencies who are trying to mitigate the sufferings of the refugee population. It has to be said that this is a country that’s used to -- if we can use a term like that -- this kind of internal strife. Because it’s been in a state of civil war or semi-civil war for over a decade now.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Maybe you could talk a little bit about what are the core issues that have been fought over, or are particularly sensitive, in Côte d’Ivoire’s history.
ADAM NOSSITER: Well there is a basic opposition, as there is in many countries in West Africa, between a dry, desert-like, Muslim north, and a more fertile, agricultural, animist Christian south. And different ethnic groups are inhabiting both of these zones. And so there’s been a kind of natural tension between those two parts of the country, ever since the country’s inception. That’s the background. The fertile, Christian south doesn’t accept the Muslim north as full and equal partners in the nation; and that’s been the case almost from the beginning. And that’s the immediate background to this particular crisis because the gentleman who happened to win the presidential election is a Muslim from the north, and he’s been a political leader in Ivory Coast, Côte d’Ivoire, for many years. But he’s never been accepted as a full Ivorian by his compatriots in the south, and they just simply refuse to recognize that he’s their equal. So they’ll never accept him as a political leader or as president. That’s the sort of underlying back story. The more immediate story though is what we’ve suggested at the beginning. You have one guy who won the election, according to every credible independent observing group, and the United Nations; and you have another guy who lost but who, as is so often the case unfortunately in Africa, is wedded to the privileges and perks of high office, like his extensive entourage, and doesn’t want to give them up.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: You mentioned that the international community has recognized Ouattara as being the electoral winner. Can you talk a little bit about how the international community has responded to the crisis, and the different responses from the African Union and ECOWAS?
ADAM NOSSITER: Well the United States and the European Union have imposed a whole series of economic sanctions on the government of the incumbent leader, who refuses to give up. They’ve essentially blockaded his port, which is his main source of revenue. They’ve banned European Union boats, for instance, from doing business with the port. They’ve frozen the assets of the port. They’ve frozen the individual assets of the whole ruling establishment. So this is having a serious effect on his revenue. They’ve also essentially stopped these sanctions and essentially stopped the major export and revenue earner of Mr. Gbagbo, which is the cocoa crop. So that’s no longer leaving Côte d’Ivoire. So those are the major-- that has been the major response of the international community, this series of economic sanctions.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: And the African Union, how are they involved?
ADAM NOSSITER: Well the African Union has, after much dithering, decided to recognize Mr. Ouattara as the actual winner of the election. For weeks and months they sent intermediaries, negotiators to Abidjan to talk to both sides, and really to try and persuade Mr. Gbagbo to step down. But that’s been fruitless, and to a certain the lack of a result there is predictable. Because everyone who has followed the history of Mr. Gbagbo would recognize that he is just not going to give up without a fight; and that’s what he’s engaged in now. So most lately, the African Union last week finally declared unequivocally that Ouattara, the leader from the north, is the winner of last November’s presidential election; and that’s a setback for Mr. Gbagbo.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Right. And it’s still not been accepted on the ground.
ADAM NOSSITER: No. That was predictable. Gbagbo is not going to accept anybody telling him to leave. He’s going to fight. As long as he has guns at his disposal-- which he will, as long as he can keep paying his military-- he’s going to fight. Like as is so often the case in Africa, particularly West Africa, he’s got everything to lose and nothing to gain by giving up. If he gives up, he doesn’t have the immense economic resources at his disposal that the presidency of this country gives him. And he has a lot of blood on his hands. He could face prosecution by the International Criminal Court. So he’s got nothing to gain by giving up.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: In terms of the violence that’s been perpetrated against civilians on the ground, who are the most vulnerable groups of people right now?
ADAM NOSSITER: The most vulnerable groups of people are the supporters of Allasane Ouattara; mostly Muslims, mostly living in poor neighborhoods in Abidjan. And they’re paying every day for Mr. Gbagbo’s intransigence. Because he’s sending in every day his security forces, and just essentially shooting up these neighborhoods at random. If it’s a Muslim neighborhood, then he’s going to send his security forces in; and they’re going to blast away. And I’ve seen this myself. They just open up with machine guns and civilians die, women, sometimes children. His armored vehicles cruise through these neighborhoods with abandon and just start firing. So if you’re in the way, you’re going to die. And these are the populations that are most vulnerable right now, by a long stretch.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: What kind of rhetoric are people hearing on the ground from radios or on the streets?
ADAM NOSSITER: The dominant rhetoric is coming from Mr. Gbagbo, because he controls a vital asset, the state television channel. So that every day the news broadcasts -- quote/unquote -- on the state television channel tell the viewers that the United Nations Peacekeeping Force there is out to subvert the sovereignty of Côte d’Ivoire; is allied with this rebel force; and is against the civilian population. That’s the dominant rhetoric. Then there’s the second rhetoric that of course blames France for all of the country’s problems, and for trying to violate the country’s sovereignty, because France, like the other European Union countries, has told Mr. Gbagbo he needs to go. And then there’s a sort of tertiary rhetoric that also blames the United States, because President Obama has made it very clear that he too believes that Mr. Ouattara is the rightful winner and that Mr. Gbagbo must go immediately. So it’s first the UN, then France, then the United States. And this is the rhetoric that one hears every day on the state television channel. And it has to be said that it’s been quite effective because ordinary citizens repeat this sort of thing quite easily and quite fluidly.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: You mentioned the UN. How are the peacekeepers doing on the ground?
ADAM NOSSITER: Well they’re in a tricky spot because they don’t want to get drawn into a confrontation with Mr. Gbagbo’s forces, despite Mr. Gbagbo’s attempts to provoke them into such a confrontation. He’s told them they have to leave. They’ve ignored that demand. So they’re treading a very fine line between not doing anything at all and showing themselves just enough to act as a buffer for the vulnerable civilian populations. They’re erring, most people would say, way too far on the side of caution, because civilians are getting killed there every day, and the UN peacekeeping force, which is now quite considerable, over 10,000, is not very visible on the ground. It is occasionally visible, but mostly it stays barricaded in its headquarters, and also protecting Mr. Ouattara. So it has to be said -- and this is a complaint that one hears from diplomats -- that they’re not really protecting the civilian population. On the other hand, were they to do so effectively, they would inevitably be drawn into an open pitched battle with Mr. Gbagbo’s forces, and they want to avoid that.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: I imagine that Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbors, the neighboring countries, are getting nervous.
ADAM NOSSITER: Yes, particularly Liberia, which is seeing all of these refugees. But these countries are small in population and they’re not that big geographically. So that when there’s trouble in one of them, inevitably it’s going to spill over into another. And we’ve seen this in the past, all throughout the 1990s, a local war turns into a regional war. Particularly now because you have (a) refugees going from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia; and (b) Liberian mercenaries coming into Côte d’Ivoire from Liberia and being employed by Mr. Gbagbo. He’s also threatened to start retaliating against the considerable migrant communities from the neighboring states, inside Côte d’Ivoire, if there’s regional military action against him. So everyone is quite nervous about that.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: So the future for Côte d’Ivoire looks dark at the moment.
ADAM NOSSITER: Looks extremely dark. Yes, it’s pretty certain that there’s going to be a lot more bloodshed before the issue is resolved.
ARIANA BERENGAUT: Well this has been an extraordinarily helpful overview, and I really appreciate your time.
ADAM NOSSITER: My pleasure.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.