Heavy Fighting Pushes Ivory Coast To Brink Of War

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Heavy fighting between two men who both claim the presidency in the Ivory Coast has brought the country to the brink of civil war. Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo was declared to have lost December's presidential election to his rival, Allasane Outtara but has refused to give up power. The U-N says up to a million people have already been displaced by the fighting. Efforts at mediation have so far failed. Host Michel Martin hears the latest from Associated Press reporter Marco Chown Oved in the commercial capital, Abidjan.


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

Coming up, the colors are changing at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We talk to some of the new diverse voices of the country's oldest civil rights organization. That's in a few minutes.

But first, we go to the West African nation of the Ivory Coast, where a political standoff between two men who both claim the presidency, has brought the country to the brink of civil war. It's been more than three months since incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo was declared by the Ivory Coast's election authority to have lost the presidential election to his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

But Gbagbo has refused to give up power. Now, heavy fighting between forces loyal to the two rival presidents is intensifying in the west of the country. Ouattara loyalists reportedly took three more towns in heavy fighting last night. More than 20,000 Ivorians reportedly fled the violence. And in all, the U.N. says, that up to a million people have been displaced by the fighting, many into neighboring Liberia.

For the latest on the situation, we're joined by Associated Press reporter Marco Chown Oved. He joins us on the line from Abidjan. Marco, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. MARCO CHOWN OVED (Reporter, Associated Press): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Is there any pattern to who is supporting which candidate? Like, for example, we hear now that the fighting is intensified in the west. Is there any particular reason for that?

Mr. OVED: The lines get drawn in the sand in many different ways. We often make this shorthand that because Alassane Ouatarra is a Muslim, that mostly Muslims support him and that because of Laurent Gbagbo is a Christian, mostly Christians support him as equally because the country has been divided since 2002 along the lines of a civil war. Those from the north support Alassane Ouattara, and those from the south support Gbagbo.

But these are pretty gross generalizations. In the end, in the big cities, we often have neighborhood by neighborhood and many Christians support Ouattara and many Muslims support Gbagbo.

But referring, of course, to the fighting over the last two days in the west, the explanation we've been hearing for that is that because it's of course the volatile border region with Liberia. And Liberia, of course, had decades of its own terrible civil war. And many of the fighters from that civil war have been coming across the border and fighting, in fact, for both sides of the battle here in Ivory Coast.

MARTIN: And given what you just told us, that in some cases in some of the urban areas, this is neighborhood by neighborhood, choosing a side. I'm just wondering, how is daily life continuing under these circumstances? I mean, is there - are the stores open? Are the schools open? What are regular people doing every day?

Mr. OVED: Well, speaking, I guess, to where I am here in the major city, the economic capital, Abidjan, it's very much shut down. Every single bank has been closed. Several of the banks were forced back open after being nationalized by the government. But that really, it brought the economy into a complete standstill. None of the factories are operating. The ports are at a standstill. The majority of major stores are closed.

But, of course, what you do have to keep in mind, here in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have a very large informal sector. So these are people that don't have formal jobs, don't receive a formal salary, don't have bank accounts. So in a weird way, the shutting down of the banks, which would paralyze the economy in Europe or in North America, here in Ivory Coast are actually better equipped to deal without banks because it's a largely cash economy.

MARTIN: Marco, in the time that we have left, I wanted to ask about the international community's role in this. There are about, as I understand it, 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast. What exactly is their role? What are they doing?

Mr. OVED: Well, their mandate is primarily the protection of civilians. They were brought in as a buffer force back when the civil war broke out in 2002. Of course, their role has evolved over the last eight years and they became sort of the certifier of the elections. And that's what has brought them to certify Alassane Ouattara's victory.

Of course, the problem now is that they were brought in as a peacekeeping force. And as hostilities escalate, they're now looking for a more harsh mandate. They're only able to fire when fired upon, that's this classic conundrum of U.N. peacekeepers. And now they're very - it's very difficult to go out and protect civilians if you have two warring parties that are openly firing on each other.

So, they've actually gone to the United Nation's Security Council and a draft resolution proposed by France and Nigeria is currently before them in order to give them a greater mandate, one that would ban any use of heavy weapons within the city limits of Abidjan. That would mean no tanks, no machine guns, no grenades or mortars. And these are, of course, are terribly, things that have been used against the population over the last few weeks.

MARTIN: And, finally, has there been any ongoing effort to mediate this dispute?

Mr. OVED: Well, like many of the efforts to mediate the dispute, this one has come to a complete stall. The African Union certified Alassane Ouattara's victory and named the representatives to come to the country to convince Gbagbo to step down and allow this transition of power to take place. Of course, now, he's been rejected by Ouattara's camp, which is sort of ironic, for being too close to Gbagbo.

I think that the fact that over the last two days we've seen this major advance both in the East and in the West. I think that this might, unfortunately, be a sign that we're giving up after four months because it is four months now since the election. They're deciding that the only way to convince Gbagbo to step down is of course by using force.

MARTIN: Marco Chown Oved is a reporter with the Associated Press. He's been covering the situation in the Ivory Coast and he was with us from Abidjan, the capital, in the Ivory Coast. Marco, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. OVED: Thank you, Michel.

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