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U.S. Defends Role in Cote d’Ivoire Crisis

Aprille Muscara*

WASHINGTON, Apr 5 2011 (IPS) - As Cote d’Ivoire enters its fourth month of post-election violence with intensified fighting and bloodshed, the White House is defending its efforts thus far to shepherd a solution to the stalemate between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognised winner of last fall’s elections.

“For the past four months, the United States has been working closely with its African and other international partners to achieve a peaceful outcome to the Ivorian crisis,” contended U.S. assistant secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars here on Tuesday.

While the Barack Obama administration’s attention has been gripped by turbulence in other parts of the world, rights groups and regional observers have been raising the alarm about Cote d’Ivoire for months, warning of a relapse into the civil war that ravaged the country for decades and a building humanitarian crisis.

More than 100,000 refugees have streamed to next-door Liberia, Oxfam estimates, while according to the United Nations, over one million residents have been displaced from their homes.

News of massacres and mass graves, the targeting of U.N. personnel on the ground, and accusations of violence by both sides have been consistent since at least January, with the latest mass atrocity of more than 800 gruesome civilian deaths by small arms and machete in the town of Duekoue reported by the International Red Cross over the weekend, apparently as a result of inter-ethnic fighting.

“Tragically, the violence that we are seeing could have been averted had Laurent Gbagbo respected the results of last year’s presidential election,” Obama said in a statement on Tuesday, in which he once again called for the embattled incumbent to cede power to Ouattara and urged all parties to cease bloodshed.

“When the crisis in the Ivory Coast started to unfold…the entire upper level of the administration was engaged,” Carson noted. “President Obama called President Gbagbo not once, but twice.” The phone calls, he said, were followed by a letter to Gbagbo, which offered him refuge in the United States and a fellowship at a prestigious university in exchange for his resignation.

“We did in fact take a pro-active and engaged policy,” Carson continued. “All of these overtures – all of these overtures – have been rejected.”

Given Gbagbo’s obstinate defiance of the election results – he garnered 46 percent of the vote, while 54 percent went to his opponent – Ouattara, whose own forces are accused by rights groups and refugees of civilian killings and reprisal attacks, was calling for his removal by military might as early as the New Year, warning of continued carnage should the stalemate of power persist.

Two regime-changes and a no-fly zone in North Africa later, critics are wondering whether the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, and the displacement of over a million civilians in Cote d’Ivoire could have been avoided with more urgent international attention and stronger force behind the widespread calls for Gbagbo to step down and violence to end.

Why Libya and not Cote d’Ivoire?

“The situation in the Ivory Coast is frequently compared to that of Libya in terms of the international community’s response and responsibilities to protect innocent civilians. That notion is simply wrong,” Carson argued.

The comparisons to the situation in the Maghreb are obvious: A strongman clings stubbornly to power and the opposition takes up arms as civilians are massacred and flee the country en masse, while the stability of the region is threatened with the precedent-setting potential of a bulldozed attempt at something that might resemble a democracy.

With some 20 countries in Africa slated to hold elections this year – including in neighbouring Liberia, the lion’s share recipient of Ivorian refugees – observers saw Cote d’Ivoire as a test of the continent’s commitment to democratise. If the results of an internationally-deemed legitimate election were flouted and yet another strongman was allowed to remain in power, the effect would be demoralising to would-be African democrats, the thinking went.

“This was a test case, not only for the Ivory Coast, this was a test case also for Africa,” Carson said. “The ballot must be respected.”

Similarly, it was feared that Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on civilians would threaten the Arab Spring of popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East and wilt the fragile bloom of its post-revolution Egyptian and Tunisian neighbours – a rationale that helped buoy the arguments for military intervention in Libya.

“The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power,” Obama said in his speech defending U.S. military action in Libya.

But beneath the quick comparisons are important differences, analysts contend. Some 11,000 U.N. blue helmets are on the ground in Cote d’Ivoire, supplemented by French forces, while Gbagbo lacks the airborne military force that Gaddafi deployed against his people.

“Without the presence of these peacekeepers, there is absolutely no doubt that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire would be far worse than it is now,” Carson argued. “Overall, the international community’s responses in Cote d’Ivoire thus far have been appropriately matched to the political and military circumstances on the ground.”

In response to escalating violence and a reported uptick in U.N.-targeted attacks, four U.N. helicopters fired missiles at two military camps and the presidential palace in the capital of Abidjan, where Gbagbo is housed and headquartered, on Monday – a rare and extraordinary move for the world body with its sparse history of military action.

“The ballot must be respected…and the international community will act if the situation warrants,” Carson reiterated, issuing a warning to other would-be incumbent strongmen bent on clinging to power through violent means.

But Carson also issued a caveat: “We should nonetheless be humbled about what can be expected of external intervention in general.”

*Follow Aprille Muscara on Twitter at @aprilledaughn.

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