Crisis Deepens In Ivory Coast Political Standoff

Security forces loyal to Ivory Coast's disputed incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo fired on peaceful protesters Tuesday, and many Ivoirians have lost water and power as the economy deteriorates. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton provides an update from the city of Abidjan.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

A crisis already three months old continues in Ivory Coast and appears to be getting worse. Last week, several women died after security forces loyal to disputed incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo shot civilians who were marching for peace. Yesterday, protesters gathered at that site for a demonstration, and the army opened fire again, killing at least four. The U.N. reports that hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country.

If you have questions about the situation in Ivory Coast, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from BBC studios in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.

Nice to have you with us as always.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings from Abidjan.

CONAN: And the last time we spoke, Ofeibea, there was a standoff between Laurent Gbagbo and the man who defeated him in the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara. Has anything changed?

QUIST-ARCTON: The standoff continues. The standoff continues, only that it has become even more violent, Neal. As you said, we're talking about up to 400 people killed in the three-plus months since the disputed presidential election.

And although we have had mediation after mediation after mediation mission by the African Union, by the Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc, still there is no settlement to this crisis.

And if anything, Ivorians are fearing that things are getting worse and worse, and that they could be sliding towards a renewed civil war.

CONAN: Mr. Gbagbo stayed in office five years after his term had expired, then agreed to this presidential election. Does anybody but him think that he actually won?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, yes. Laurent Gbagbo has a lot of supporters, especially here in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, also in the west of the country.

And, of course, the argument from Gbagbo's camp is that although the independent electoral commission declared for Ouattara and said that Ouattara won the election, but the Constitutional Council, which is like the Supreme Court, the most supreme legal body here, overturned that ruling and said that he had won. So they're all going with that side of the argument.

But that is really here in Ivory Coast, and pockets of Ivory Coast. You have the West African community saying that Ouattara won the election. You have the wider African Union saying that Ouattara won the election. And, of course, you have most of the world saying that Ouattara won the election. But Laurent Gbagbo is sticking to his guns.

CONAN: And in the meantime, we heard rumblings from the West African Union that they might intervene if Mr. Gbagbo was not going to step aside.

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, that was what? Three months ago, Neal. And although ECOWAS, as it's called, the regional bloc, had said that if he did not step down, it would consider using what it called legitimate force to remove him.

Shortly after this, there seemed to be a united front among regional West African leaders and then at the continental level, African Union leaders, splits began to show. And African leaders started saying, hey, perhaps this is not the way to go - military intervention to remove -albeit a disputed president - let us go the route of dialogue, let us go the route of mediation.

Three-plus months later, we're still going down that route with, as I say, no resolution and more and more people being killed.

Gbagbo's still in charge of the army, which is opening fire on unarmed civilians here in Abidjan. And now, it's not only the security forces against civilians, but in the west of the country, you have pro-Ouattara - Forces Nouvelles, they're called, the new rebel - former rebels - the new forces former rebels against Gbagbo's security forces. So now, it's armed groups who are fighting each other, which is why there are so much fear in the country now that they're going down the path of a renewed conflict.

CONAN: And that it might end up in civil war. But you mentioned forces. There had been conflict in Ivory Coast leading up to this election, which was supposed to resolve it, but no open warfare.

QUIST-ARCTON: You know what? There was a divided country. It's true that Laurent Gbagbo controlled the south of the country, whilst pro-Ouattara knew forces, rebels control the north of the country and that's still the case. But for six years plus there was a ceasefire across the line -the frontline, and there had not been fighting. So the fight that the opposing military forces are now clashing is what is really causing a lot of fear.

You've got tens of thousands of Ivorians fleeing across the western border into Liberia for fear of attacks, for fear that there is going to be even more fighting. You - there are people fleeing into neighboring Guinea. Ghana is on standby in case people flee across the border into Ghana. So there is heightened tension.

And because people are being killed at the same time, Ivorians are asking themselves, are we at the brink or are we going to go past the brink this time? A rebellion last time, but out and out civil war this time.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who's in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. If you have questions about the worsening situation there, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Jason(ph), Jason on the line with us from Davisburg in Michigan.

JASON (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi.

JASON: Just wondering, what's the biggest reason or idea that's holding back the U.N. from actually taking action? It seems that, like, the United States administration has said that the results were in and he shouldn't be in power, but there hasn't been a whole lot as far as taking steps to counter that. And I will go ahead and take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Jason. Thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: And that was the United Nations, he mentioned, was it? Jason?

CONAN: Yes. Yes.

QUIST-ARCTON: Yeah. The U.N. has a peacekeeping mission here, a very big peacekeeping mission. But I'm afraid it has lost the confidence of Laurent Gbagbo, who now says that it's a partisan force; that it's biased towards Ouattara.

And let me explain that a little bit. The U.N. here, according to a peace deal from 2007 that both sides signed, was to certify the results of the election. Now, that happened in round one. But when there was a dispute in round two, and the U.N. certified the results as given by the independent electoral commission, that's when Gbagbo's camp said, you are - we don't consider you neutral anymore. You've become a party to this conflict.

So the U.N. is in a difficult position. Its peacekeepers have been attacked. It's being, now, blocked by the Jeunes Patriotes, the Young Patriots, who are pro-Gbagbo, almost a militia group. They're setting up roadblocks all over Abidjan. And when they are called on to descend on to the streets, (foreign language spoken), as it's called in French, that's what they do. They're causing also a lot of trouble.

So the U.N. does not have the mandate. The U.N. peacekeeping mission does not have the mandate to use force in the way that might end this potential conflict. It's told that it must protect civilians. And many people are saying it's not doing enough. But it also says it's having a very difficult job here. Over 2,000 more have come from neighboring Liberia because it does not have that mandate. They're leaving that - I say they. The international community is leaving that to the West African regional bloc.

CONAN: And some might note that the Western powers are discussing the idea of a no-fly zone or military intervention in Libya, whose principal export is oil, but not really thinking about it in Ivory Coast, whose principal export is cocoa.

QUIST-ARCTON: No such talk. Ivory Coast does export crude oil as well. But, of course, not to - not in the quantities that Libya does. But, of course, let's talk cocoa because that has been, perhaps, one of the weapons in this standoff between the two presidential claimants.

A month and a bit ago, Alassane Ouattara banned the export of cocoa beans from Ivory Coast. The idea was to financially strangle Gbagbo, to starve him of state revenues, of taxes, et cetera and that ban came into force. Also, the European Union banned ships from coming into Ivory Coast ports to pick up cocoa and whatever other exports.

And just recently, Laurent Gbagbo says he is going to nationalize the cocoa industry and that those who do not start paying taxes to his rival government by the end of the month will find that they'll be paying taxes in the - I don't know how many tons of cocoa beans that are being stored at ports and in warehouses here in Abidjan, where some of the cocoa goes from and also from San Pedro, which is the second port down in the south, where there has been no activity for weeks now.

So we've got a crippled economy. We've got banks, high-street banks, which are all closed. We've got a conflict over the economy. We've got a conflict over the political situation and, of course, a conflict now between the rival military forces.

CONAN: And as I understand it, there are also problems with electrical supply and water as well.

QUIST-ARCTON: Last week - was it last week or even the week before perhaps - it seems that Laurent Gbagbo's government cut off the supply of electricity and water to the northern half of the country and that's the part of the country that Alassane Ouattara's stronghold and that's ruled by the former rebels who are pro-Ouattara. So you have people in Bouake, which is the gateway to the north and the central part of the country, and others who are not receiving - who are not getting power, and are not getting running water.

Here in Abidjan, we were told that Abobo, which is another Ouattara stronghold and deeply opposed to Laurent Gbagbo - and that's why we've seen most of the deaths over the past three months. And the killing of the seven-plus women last week has also, I believe, had electricity and water cut off. And we're talking about 200,000 people who have fled that part of Abidjan, the northern part of the city, because of these clashes with the pro-Gbagbo security forces.

Now, Gbagbo's people say they are being provoked by pro-Ouattara forces who they say have infiltrated this city. And so this is why we have a military standoff as well as the political and presidential tug of war. It's a desperate situation.

CONAN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Noah(ph), Noah with us from Greenville in Tennessee.

NOAH (Caller): Yes, I had a quick question about the ethnic lines that the conflict may be falling upon. Could your guest comment about whether or not the - like the Senoufo tribe in the north in Bouake and further north are being punished by Gbagbo, and if it that does fall along certain kind of ethnic tensions that exist in the country? I'll take my response off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Noah.

QUIST-ARCTON: Certainly, the northern part of the country has been saying for a long time that it's been marginalized by Ivory Coast leaders, specifically Laurent Gbagbo. Now, the north is predominantly Muslim, but it has plenty of Christians and enemies. And the south is mainly Christian, but it has plenty of Muslims and enemies.

But you do - that is why the northern rebels said that they had launched their rebellion back in 2002, because, A, they were considered second-class citizens here in Ivory Coast, B, they were being totally marginalized by the authority, and C, that their right to vote was being questioned.

It was called - it's called Ivoirete, who is an Ivorian. And it was the most insidious political policy that it became that great swaths of this country - people were - felt completely cut off. They felt that they weren't being allowed to vote, that they were not being given jobs, that they were not being given opportunities, and that hasn't changed.

I mean, that's one of the root problems here that it's even being, in a way, not forgotten but slightly put on the back burner because we've got this military and political conflict.

But those are the sorts of issues that Ivorians felt that the election in November, the presidential runoff, would end - the divisions, the feeling that some Ivorians felt more Ivorian than others, that those were the sorts of problems that they would resolve. They haven't even been able to deal with that because of this current crisis.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get one last call in. We just have a minute or so left. But Maycelle, Maycelle with us from Cleveland.

MAYCELLE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MAYCELLE: Okay. I have a question. My question to this reporter, I want to know, if when they went to Ouagadougou to have the meeting, the U.N. and the Ivorian government agreed that Ivorian would not have a constitution council again, and that the U.N. will be representing the country for everything. That's my question.

And my second question is, if Alassane won the election, why they have to go announce the election to the international news instead to announce it to the Ivorian news first? Everybody in Ivory Coast - my family lives there. They heard it on the news that Alassane won the election. But they didn't hear it from the TV station, they heard it from the international news station.

CONAN: Ofeibea, is that - was it released to the international new stations first?

QUIST-ARCTON: How long have I got? Let me just say briefly that both sides - and that was - but both side, as well as Ouattara's side, agreed in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, at the peace deal in 2007 that the United Nations would certify the results of the election. And then, yes, the constitutional council would be the final arbiter. But of certified elections, that didn't happen. And it's true that foreign media put out the news that the electoral commission had said Ouattara won.

But the national broadcaster, the national television is controlled by Laurent Gbagbo, so he puts out - his people put out what they want to put out. It's become a propaganda machine. So the lady is saying, how come they heard from us? They heard from us because we reported what the electoral commission said. The next day, when the constitutional council said that Gbagbo had won and not Ouattara, we also put out that news.

CONAN: And briefly, Ofeibea, is Mr. Ouattara still under something of a siege in his hotel there in Abidjan?

QUIST-ARCTON: For the first time in three months, he has left the hotel. He is actually in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, which is the headquarters of the African Union. Both Gbagbo and Ouattara have been invited by a panel of presidents who have been tasked with resolving and finding a binding settlement to this crisis.

So he is in Addis, as I speak. Laurent Gbagbo declined to go. He sent his foreign minister and the head of his party. The meetings were being held today, Wednesday, and again tomorrow. Everybody is holding thumbs and crossing their fingers that something positive will come out of it. But, Neal, I have to say, many Ivorians are really discouraged.

CONAN: Well, we look forward to your report. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as always, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton from the BBC studio in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. Tomorrow, Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times will join us to fact-check oft-repeated assumptions some of us make about public workers. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR NEWS.

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