Scenarios: Possible outcomes in Ivory Coast’s crisis

By Richard Valdmanis

DAKAR (BestGrowthStock) – An election meant to resolve Ivory Coast’s decade-long political crisis has resulted in two rivals claiming the presidency, with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo defying world pressure to hand over to Alassane Ouattara.

The standoff has killed more than 170 people, according to the United Nations, and threatens to push the West African country back into civil war.

Here are a few possible scenarios for what happens next:

FOREIGN INTERVENTION

The heads of state of West African regional bloc ECOWAS said on December 24 they could resort to “legitimate force” to oust Gbagbo if he does not step down voluntarily and cede power to Ouattara.

The announcement marked the first direct threat of force in the stand-off, and is notable because it came from Gbagbo’s neighbors, as opposed to the Western powers he has accused of interfering in internal Ivorian politics.

This appears, for now, to be a pressure tactic as opposed to an imminent threat of intervention. It has coincided with fresh U.S. and E.U. sanctions, financing freezes by the World Bank and West African central bank, and a call on Sunday by Ouattara for a nationwide general strike.

ECOWAS will send the presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to tell Gbagbo in person he must step down “as soon as possible” or face force, according to Benin’s foreign minister.

If a military force is eventually sent in by ECOWAS, and Gbagbo refused to budge in face of the threat, it could trigger open conflict. Gbagbo’s government army would be up against the ECOWAS force, known as ECOMOG, as well as the northern rebels who tried to topple him in 2002.

CIVIL WAR

Despite an arms embargo, analysts say both government forces and rebels have been re-arming for years. The election row has reignited north-south divisions as hundreds of thousands of votes were canceled in the rebel-held north.

Pro-Ouattara rebels and government forces briefly exchanged fire last week in Tiebissou, the central town that marks the line between the rebel-held north and government-held south.

Any big military thrust would risk triggering a rush by Ivorians for refuge in neighboring countries which are in no fit state themselves to take in extra civilians.

Around 14,000 people have already crossed into Liberia and some 200 into Guinea since last month’s election, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A relapse into conflict could jeopardize cocoa deliveries to world markets if supply routes from growing regions to the ports were disrupted. Yet, longtime observers note that supplies got to market even at the height of the 2002-03 conflict.

The United Nations has said it will stay and pursue a mandate that includes protection of civilians under “imminent threat.” How the 10,000-strong force responds in the crisis will depend largely on how it interprets that mandate on the ground.

GBAGBO STEPS DOWN

The threat of a military intervention by ECOWAS is part of a multi-pronged international effort to pressure Gbagbo to voluntarily leave power. It could work.

Gbagbo and his inner circle have been targeted with U.S. and EU travel bans, World Bank and Central Bank of West African Economic and Monetary Union finance freezes, and the threat of prosecution for alleged human rights violations.

Ouattara has called for a nationwide general strike to last until he steps down, in a gamble that it will be widely heeded.

While Gbagbo has shown no sign of buckling to the pressure, he may start to find that the measures against him, particularly those drying up his cash flow, start to make an offer exile in another African country look like a viable option.

There are serious questions about how long Gbagbo will be able to continue paying the salaries of the soldiers loyal to him, and how loyal they will be if they are not getting paid.

It is unclear how much money is reaching Gbagbo from the cocoa sector, Ivory Coast’s top industry, whose output has been slowed only marginally by the turmoil. Whether the strike will slow down the sector remains to be seen.

COMPROMISE

A compromise is appearing increasingly unlikely as both sides continue to dig their heels in, and world and regional powers have come out so firmly in favor of Ouattara.

They have both named governments. Gbagbo’s team occupies official government buildings while Ouattara’s cabinet is run out of a hotel protected by a ring of U.N. troops.

Ouattara’s camp insists it will not accept any solution in which Gbagbo remains president. Moreover, both the African Union and the ECOWAS regional grouping say they would not favor a power-sharing deal such as those seen in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Gbagbo has made a career out of defying international pressure and, via supportive state television, portrays world support for Ouattara as foreign meddling with an old colonial agenda — a line packing resonance among his supporters.

Gbagbo has been offered exile in Africa, but his spokesman has said he is not leaving. Any such move is complicated by the possibility that Gbagbo and his allies could face prosecution for outbreaks of violence.

MASSIVE POPULAR PROTESTS

Ouattara supporters are, for the moment, reluctant to take to the streets after a bloody crackdown earlier in the month, preferring instead to place their faith in diplomatic progress.

Gbagbo himself used protests to oust General Robert Guei during a disputed election between the pair in 2000, bringing thousands of his supporters onto the streets to force the coup leader to accept defeat.

Ouattara’s camp called its supporters out on the streets last week in what proved a failed attempt to seize the state broadcaster, leading to clashes with security forces in which at least 20 people were killed.

They have since largely kept a low profile for fear of further crackdowns, and residents in pro-Ouattara neighborhoods have said gunmen in masks have been attacking them by night.

Gbagbo’s presidential guard was out in force during last week’s street clashes, suggesting he can at least count on solid support from the heavily armed unit.

A spokesman for the army said last week that the troops remained unified behind Gbagbo, seeking to counter rumors of divisions within the ranks. Further street clashes cannot be ruled out if the impasse drags on.

Scenarios: Possible outcomes in Ivory Coast’s crisis