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Below the Radar, Côte d’Ivoire Deteriorates

By Ariana Berengaut

Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. December 16, 2010. UN Photo/Basile Zoma

Amidst the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, an attempted transfer of power in Côte d’Ivoire the peaceful, democratic way – through elections – is increasingly collapsing into civil war, with devastating consequences for civilians.

Presidential elections four months ago in this West African country produced an internationally recognized winner, Alassane Ouattara. But the ousted president, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to concede. Despite strong international consensus backing Ouattara, tensions are rising. On March 10, the African Union Peace and Security Council confirmed Ouattara’s legitimacy and called on Gbagbo to step down. Gbagbo immediately rejected the AU’s decision and has since brought the country to the very edge of full scale armed conflict, with violent clashes occurring every day.

The warning signals for mass atrocities – a threat that increases with the onset of war -- have already been issued. In mid-January, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) together warned of the potential for crimes against humanity and genocide in Côte d’Ivoire. “We fear we are on the brink… of something very destructive. We have not crossed the precipice yet,” said Ed Luck, the Special Adviser on R2P. Since then, however, the violence against civilians has only escalated, the political stalemate worsened, and the refugees crisis deepened.

The recent history of Côte d’Ivoire gives ample reason for concern over current reports of rape, killing, disappearances, and looting targeted against entire groups. Recovering from a civil war that ended only in 2003, Côte d’Ivoire has a long track record of tension among its ethnic, religious, and national groups. Now, in the wake of a disputed election, those historic tensions are once again being exploited and inflamed. In an investigation into abuses in Abidjan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recorded “an often-organized campaign of violence” against members of the opposition political parties, ethnic groups from northern Côte d’Ivoire, Muslims, and immigrants from neighboring West African countries.

Since mid-December, the UN has recorded almost 400 deaths, including 50 alone in the last week of February when violence spiked. In recent days, the number of refugees in Liberia has soared from 40,000 right after the election in November to 90,000. An additional 300,000 people have fled to Abidjan from a suburb called Abobo, where heavy fighting, makeshift roadblocks, and roving gangs of armed men torment the pro-Ouattara population. One refugee who had managed to make it to Liberia from Abobo told the BBC, “They just forced the doors and entered to kill you. You can’t identify them. They are all wearing plain clothes. I saw too many dead bodies to count, dead bodies just everywhere.”

On March 3, security forces in Abobo shot dead seven women marching in support of Ouattara. The following day, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sounded the alarm on the escalating crisis. According to its early warning and urgent action procedure, the UN expert body cited “reports of the seriously declining human rights and humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire, including ethnic tensions, incitement to ethnic violence, xenophobia, religious and ethnic discrimination.” Another four people were killed in Abobo on March 8, as they demonstrated against the deaths of the previous week.

“This could become Africa’s latest forgotten crisis,” reported Oxfam’s Country Director for neighboring Liberia. “For more than three months now the people of Ivory Coast have been living with the threat of violence, intimidation, economic collapse and sexual assault.” Electricity and water have been cut to the north, a traditionally anti-Gbagbo region. In the west, fighting has erupted between forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara. Weapons are easily available, a legacy of the recent civil war, and HRW has documented massive recruitment by both sides in areas that have already seen fighting. On March 15, HRW announced that it believes Gbagbo and his close allies are now implicated in crimes against humanity.

The economy has stalled under strict international sanctions, and hope for diplomatic leadership to help pave a path out of the current crisis has darkened. Delegations from the African Union and the regional group of fifteen West African countries have unsuccessfully tried to persuade Gbagbo to step down. Failed and faulty elections in places like Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere feed violence and embolden other leaders who may wish to manipulate their own systems. At best, this corrodes trust between a people, their government, and the promise of democracy; at worst, it threatens mass atrocities against civilians.

There are over a dozen elections scheduled to yet take place in Africa in 2011, and the risk of electoral violence leading to mass atrocities remains a deep concern for several of them. The electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire may not be grabbing the headlines today, but as it worsens, atrocities might.