African Leaders Take Sides In Ivory Coast Standoff

More than two months ago after it began, the political crisis in the West African nation of Ivory Coast continues to deepen. The incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo has been clinging to power after losing a run-off election in November. Initially, the African Union joined the European Union and United Nations in urging Gbagbo to step aside but it now seems that African leaders are choosing sides. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about the latest developments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We'll look ahead to the music industry's biggest event, the Grammy Awards. They are on Sunday.

But, first, an update on the political crisis in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. More than two months ago, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, lost a runoff election. The results were certified by the United Nations. But Gbagbo refused to accept the results and hand over the reins to his rival, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara.

Initially the African Union joined the European Union and the United Nations in urging Gbagbo to step aside. But now it seems that African leaders are choosing sides.

NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been following the crisis and she joins us now from Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's main city. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Greetings.

MARTIN: So, what has happened? Initially it seemed as though the international community was of one mind in declaring that the incumbent had lost and should step aside for his rival, Alassane Ouatarra. What's happened?

QUIST-ARCTON: Yeah. In fact, it was the economic community of West African states. The regional body, which was the first to stand behind Alassane Ouatarra as the president-elect of Ivory Coast, followed by the White House. The U.N. of course certified the vote in line with a peace deal back in 2007. Then the African Union also said that Gbagbo stand down because you've lost -Laurent Gbagbo being the incumbent president of the past 10 years.

But over the two months since that disputed election, Michel, you see that the African countries which seemed to be speaking with one voice at the beginning are beginning to take sides.

MARTIN: So, Ofeibea, if the international community was pretty unified at the outset after the elections, how did the unity or why did the unity start to break down?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think because African leaders began to look - well, actually, this could be me, when people are saying, well, hang on, perhaps Laurent Gbagbo has a point. We came to a conclusion very quickly, endorsed Alassane Ouattara as the president-elect. But did we look at the true facts on the ground? And that's why we have had mission upon mission of mediators coming to Ivory Coast and apparently investigating and studying the situation.

But, Michel, they've come and they've gone. They've met the two rival leaders and, still, there seems to be not one voice in Africa. But you have some leaders saying, well, hang on, if the Ivorian people have spoken and they have chosen their elected leader, Alassane Ouattara, then it's the leader is refusing to go. If it means using legitimate force, we will use that.

Then the other African leader's saying, well, hang on, we don't want military force that could perhaps lead to war and a regional war that would spill over Ivory Coast border. Let's try and resolve this through dialogue, negotiation and mediation. But two months later, two months down the road, the situation has not moved forward.

MARTIN: Now, a South African warship is off the coast of the Ivory Coast. Do I have that right? And why is that?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, we're told that the warship has been off the West African coast because it's doing normal routine training with South African sailors. But the South African government is also saying that if the warship should be needed, they're ready to come into action. But we're told that this isn't any sort of military action.

South Africa, in fact, has been quite outspoken about saying that the crisis in Ivory Coast is a post-electoral crisis and perhaps a vote recount - looking at the vote is the way forward and not military action. But we - I've also been hearing today that they're saying if there is a way of getting the two protagonists in this increasingly bitter and deadly power struggle as possible, Alassane Ouatarra and Laurent Gbagbo, if it's possible to get the two together face to face, then perhaps they could meet on this South African warship. But Ouattara's side has said absolutely not.

And, Michel, let me just add here: It's not just South Africa. You've got Zimbabwe who's saying no military force. Uganda has said no military force. But on the other side, you have Nigeria. Nigeria is the regional powerbroker here in West Africa, saying well, look. The people have decided. If the incumbent president is refusing to go, we must push him out. So they're not ruling out military force. But as I say, the whole continent is now questioning, or most of the continent is now saying: Well, is that the right way?

The African Union, just two weeks ago, decided to set up a presidential panel of five presidents to look into the Ivory Coast issue. They've got until the end of the month - which is what, just over two weeks - to try and fix the problem - tough.

MARTIN: We're speaking with NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's bringing us up-to-date on events in the ongoing political crisis in the Ivory Coast.

So tell us about the conditions on the ground for Ivorians. What are they - we are hearing that large numbers of people are leaving. They're trying to seek refuge in Liberia, which has its own, you know, difficulties. What are you hearing?

QUIST-ARCTON: Thousands of Ivorians have left Ivory Coast, from the western part of the country a cross into Liberia's border. There has been violence in the West, which is known as the Wild West. It is a lawless part of Ivory Coast. It's a part where Liberian mercenaries and rebels easily cross over. So what -thousands of especially women and children have taken refuge, initially with host families, across the border in Liberia. But the United Nations refugee agency is actually setting up a camp, because there - what? More than 30,000 people have crossed in the past two months. But you have also people crossing out of nervousness and fear into neighboring Ghana, Guinea.

Ivorians are really jittery and tense, because they don't know how this latest conflict is going to either resolve itself or, as many people fear, perhaps plunge them back into a real civil war.

MARTIN: Well, another alternative could be a power-sharing arrangement similar to what has been arranged in Kenya and in Zimbabwe after disputed and very, you know, difficult elections there. But both of those situations - you know, neither of those situations seems particularly satisfying to any of the parties. Is there now talk of a power-sharing arrangement? And what role is the United Nations playing in all of this?

QUIST-ARCTON: Michel, that's the one option that actually has been ruled out up until now. I mean, who knows whether that will change? But people have looked at Kenya, they've looked at Zimbabwe, and they say that's not a solution for Ivory Coast. But I suppose all options will be on the table.

Now the U.N., the U.N. peacekeeping force here, which sent 2,000 more peacekeepers to the country after the Security Council approved it, if you talk to the Gbagbo people, the U.N. is vilified here. Its vehicles have been targeted. Its peacekeepers have been targeted. But what the Gbagbo people say is that the U.N. is no longer a neutral force in this country, that it has taken sides. And it is, after all, U.N. peacekeepers who are guarding Alassane Ouattara at the hotel where he has his headquarters. So peacekeeping, some people say, the Ouattara people, but a party to the conflict, the Gbagbo people say.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent, and she joined us from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.

Thank you so much for joining us, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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