BOSTON — Has Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo surrendered or does he remain defiant in his bunker?
Just as one authoritative report has him stepping down and seeking United Nations protection, Gbagbo speaks to French television and says that he will not cede power because he is the legally elected leader of Ivory Coast.
It is clear, however, that Gbagbo is holed up in the fortified basement of his Abidjan residence, with a few family and loyal aides. Most of his troops have defected and others are under attack by a combination of forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of a November election, as well as U.N. and French forces.
No matter how long he holds on inside his bunker, it appears Gbagbo’s 10-year rule over Ivory Coast is at an end. What next for Ivory Coast? How can the country return to stability, democracy and prosperity? What can heal the ethnic and religious divisions that have been exploited by Gbagbo and other politicians?
These are the big questions facing Ivory Coast.
How to get the country’s cocoa exports back to normal appears to be one of the easier challenges. Ivory Coast produces about 40 percent of the world’s annual cocoa trade and the disruption of its exports has caused international prices to rise. But once international sanctions are lifted, experts say the cocoa production and exports should get back to normal fairly quickly.
And that will jump start Ivory Coast’s economy and get the country back on the road to prosperity.
In the short term, help is needed to bring back the thousands of refugees who fled the country and the estimated 1 million who have left their homes and are seeking shelter within Ivory Coast.
The international charity Oxfam has launched a $16 million appeal for Ivory Coast. It said thousands of people are reported to be making their way to the border area after the latest battles and violence against civilians. There are already more than 100,000 refugees who have fled to remote border villages in Liberia, where Oxfam has set up water and sanitation facilities. The group is sending a team of experts this week to evaluate how to respond to the crisis.
Once Ouattara takes control of Ivory Coast, he will inherit many long-running problems.
Ivory Coast is about to enter a “new phase of uncertainty,” said Phil Clarke, a lecturer in international politics at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
“Ouattara will inherit a heavily destablized situation. Abidjan and environs are still overrun by Gbagbo's heavily armed forces. Ouattara also faces a divided population, a large proportion of which don't see him as a legitimate president. Also it is unclear how Ouattara will control his own forces ... they are a separate rebel movement who opportunistically have jumped on board with Ouattara,” Clarke said.
Ouattara has not had “day-to-day command” of those rebel forces. Ouattara will have to show that he can control those troops and create a single, law-abiding national army. Ouattara has had to side with “some very problematic characters” and now he must bring them into line, according to Clarke.
One of the most difficult challenges will be to end the climate of impunity that exists after a decade of Gbagbo.
“A sense of impunity for all kinds of crimes has thrived over the past 10 years,” said Corinne Dufka, the senior researcher in West Africa for Human Rights Watch.
“There were war crimes during the civil war of 2002-2003. The justice system has crumbled. Crimes were never investigated. Recently there has been utter lawlessness in the western part of the country. Crimes have been committed by both forces. They need to be properly investigated and arrests need to be made," she said. "The vicious cycle of violence must be stopped.”
Dufka, who has frequently visited Ivory Coast from her base in Senegal, said that ethnic and religious differences have been exacerbated by politicians who encouraged divisions between Christians and Muslims. In addition, there are large numbers of immigrants from other West African countries that need to be integrated into the system.
“Politicians manipulated these differences,” Dufka said. “There was a political manipulation of ethnicity and over a period of years, these divisions take on a life of their own. Now work is needed to reduce those tensions.”
The surrender of Laurent Gbagbo is just the first step of a long and challenging process that is needed to return Ivory Coast to the reputation it once enjoyed as one of West Africa’s most stable and prosperous democracies.