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COTE D’IVOIRE: Still Stuck in Stalemate

Analysis by Aprille Muscara

WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2011 (IPS) - The past-due leader of this resource-rich African nation remains bent on clinging to power, despite calls by his opposition and the wider international community to leave office immediately.

Meanwhile, the country inches closer to civil war, violence against peaceful protestors and innocent civilians is escalating, and a humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced residents deepens.

In light of the continuing turmoil, the regime has been accused of war crimes, sanctions have been imposed and the opposition has called for the international community to use military force to end the bloodshed and remove the strongman who refuses to step down.

Although the unrest in Cote d’Ivoire has divided the country for the last three months, the West African nation has lacked the public, high-level attention that Libya has received.

“One is being reported minute by minute by international media, twitter and on blogs,” wrote Nigerian social justice activist and author Sokari Ekine in Pambazuka Wednesday. “The other is just beginning to emerge from the margins of international consciousness.”

“Unlike Libya, Cote d’Ivoire has no strategic importance and the possible loss of its main resource – cocoa – doesn’t have the world financial markets and governments in a panic,” she argued.

Although cocoa prices have experienced 30-year highs in recent months as a result of the number-one cocoa-exporting country’s conflict – making “shelves empty of chocolate bars…much more likely than queues for petrol” – the truth is, “oil is more important to modern life than cocoa”, the Financial Times echoed Thursday.

“But for Cote d’Ivoire’s subsistence cocoa pickers, farmers and the country’s economy, cocoa is a lifesaver and very much worth fighting over,” reminded Ekine.

Before the Arab world erupted in popular revolt, drawing headlines and Western leaders’ attention away from the Maghreb’s southern neighbours, analysts were pinning the future of the entire continent on the outcome of Cote d’Ivoire’s stalemate.

“If Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t get resolved properly, then… democrats across the African continent can…go home,” Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, senior associate at the National Democratic Institute, argued at a panel discussion here some two months ago.

“The votes of citizens must count after they are cast, or democracy will not hold in the continent,” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said around the same time.

With around 20 African elections scheduled this year, observers saw Cote d’Ivoire as a test of Africa’s commitment to democratisation.

Yet, despite an initial surge of verbal support by world leaders, some 90 days after the country’s disputed presidential elections, the situation seems to have only worsened.

Failing Grades

It was only after a recent escalation of attacks against civilians that U.S. President Barack Obama finally issued a statement – albeit written – of condemnation on Wednesday after nearly two months of silence and again urged former President Laurent Gbagbo to cede power.

“I am particularly appalled by the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians during peaceful rallies, many of them women,” Obama said. “All armed parties in Cote d’Ivoire must make every effort to protect civilians from being targeted, harmed or killed.”

The United Nations estimates that in the past week alone, 27 people have been killed in the post-election violence, bringing the death toll to nearly 400 since mid-December. The opposition claims that the number is much higher.

The statement comes at the same time as a two-day African Union (AU) summit taking place this week, where a dispute resolution panel of seven heads of state met once again in an attempt to negotiate an end to the years-long rivalry between incumbent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognised winner of last winter’s elections.

If the Ivorian elections were a test for African democracy, the AU’s – along with other regional bodies’ – ability to end the ensuing power struggle is itself a test of the continent’s commitment to democratise and the strength of its regional integration institutions – a test they seem to be failing.

According to media reports, Gbagbo’s representatives swiftly rejected the panel’s first-day proposal to end the stalemate. By Thursday, the high-profile group reportedly reached a decision to call for Gbagbo’s departure and insist on Ouattara’s legitimacy.

Up to this week, some on the panel were said to prefer a power-sharing agreement of the same stripe that has enabled the likes of Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe to maintain authority after refusing to step down.

Panel members include the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, South Africa and Tanzania as well as Jonathan, current chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and AU chairperson Teodoro Obiang, who, after Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, is the continent’s second-longest standing ruler and whose own regime is accused of corruption, torture and murder.

While the AU and ECOWAS seem to be fumbling their attempts to normalise the situation in Cote d’Ivoire – at the same time that the former must carefully shape its policy on Libya – observers warn of further escalation in violence as Gbagbo entrenches.

“There is a risk of resurgence of the civil war in the country,” the United Nations Human Rights chief Navi Pillay warned Thursday, urging an end to the conflict.

“Overall, the situation appears to be deteriorating alarmingly, with a sharp increase in inter-communal and inter-ethnic confrontations,” she noted. “Human rights abuses, including rapes, abductions and killings, are being committed by people supporting both sides.”

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