Ivory Coast: three reasons for optimism

In both Rwanda and then, initially, in the former Yugoslavia, international peacekeeping troops were dispatched and then largely stood by as widespread, murderous violence took place around them. A mixture of weak mandates, limited military deployments and prioritising the safety of peacekeepers over those they were meant to be protecting meant little was achieved until – in the case of Yugoslavia – greater military force was deployed by the international community.

That lesson has strongly influenced many international interventions since – don’t intervene unless you are willing to do so with significant military firepower. The desire to minimise loss of lives to the nations sending forces has meant an over-reliance on airpower at times, but as we have seen in both Libya and – belatedly – Ivory Coast – the international consensus, such as it is, is that if you are going to intervene it has to be with serious military power of at least some sort.

The French-led military deployments in Ivory Coast have been particularly aggressive in their interpretation of protecting civilians in recent days, launching direct military attacks on the forces of (ex) President Gbagbo which played a large part in his ousting from office by the forces of legitimately elected Alassane Ouattara.

Ouattara and his forces are no unblemished shining knights. His forces are prime suspects in some atrocities themselves and Ouattara himself was previously Prime Minister under the dictator President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. As dictators go, Houphouët-Boigny was better than many, overseeing economic progress and – after his initial repression – an often moderate political course. But a dictator he was and Ouattara willingly served under him.

Gbagbo was an anti-government dissident at the time and that, added to the religious differences between him and Ouattara, explains much of the bitterness of their recent rivalry – and the deep and widespread roots to the hostility means there is much healing to do in a still divided nation.

How events develop further in Ivory Coast and Libya, whether into success or failure, will shape future attitudes to foreign military intervention. But in the short term there are third promising signs.

First, had Gbagbo remained in office there would have been a clear lesson to other dictators who lose election results looking to the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe or elsewhere: refuse to leave office and dare the international community to act. But with Gbagbo having been ousted, the calculation looks rather different. Leave office and you can, frequently, enjoy a wealthy retirement. Try to rig elections or stick in office and you risk being forced out.

CacaoSecond, the creation of a three-person UN team to investigate human rights abuses is another step forward in the slow, messy, inconsistent but needed and welcome extension of the reach of justice. In as diverse cases as Kenya, Sudan and now Ivory Coast, justice is no longer something to be ignored as a foreign obsession.

Third, for the Ivory Coast itself there is the potential of its once very prosperous cocoa industry. Rubber, coffee and oil all also can provide the basis for a return to Ivory Coast’s days as one of the most successful countries in West Africa.

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