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International interventions in C么te d'Ivoire: In search of a point of leverage

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Mike McGovern argues that the threat of international prosecution or the use of UN sanctions have achieved a certain success in limiting the damage of the war C么te d'Ivoire, but attempts to engineer a political solution via a series of peace accords and coercive Security Council resolutions have largely failed.

Peacekeepers, including approximately 4,000 from聽France and as many as 7,000 UN聽troops, patrolled a聽buffer zone and tried to聽quell聽periodic outbursts of intense violence followed聽by long periods of relative calm.

Mike McGovern

The Ivorian conflict may have attracted more international attention than any other African conflict of recent decades, yet the results of that interest have been mitigated at best.

Mike McGovern argues that the threat of international prosecution or the use of UN sanctions have achieved a certain success in limiting the damage of the war, but attempts to engineer a political solution via a series of peace accords and coercive Security Council resolutions have largely failed.聽It is not yet clear if the Ouagadougou Peace Agreement will be implemented in a meaningful way.

This article gives a brief overview of the conflict and an inventory of the different international interventions so far utilised, and ends by reviewing what has worked or not, and why.


The Ivorian conflict may have attracted more international attention than any other African conflict of recent decades. At least this is the conclusion one would reach by calculating the ratio of the number of international peacekeepers to war casualties. One reason for this is that in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and the perception that large-scale killings were possible in C么te d'Ivoire, international actors wanted to be seen to be doing as much as possible to prevent another such human catastrophe. A second factor is the robust involvement of a combination of international actors, including former colonial power France, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). The Ivorian crisis emerged and worsened at exactly the same time that the United States was following a unilateral path towards its invasion of Iraq. In the shadow of that rejection of consensus-seeking, actors such as France and the AU sought significant multilateral cover for their actions in C么te d'Ivoire, and thus a high level of diplomatic activity ensued.

Yet the results of that interest have been mitigated at best. The threat of international prosecution or the use of sanctions such as the UN Security Council's travel ban and assets freeze list have achieved a certain success in limiting the damage of the war. However, attempts by ECOWAS, France, the AU and the Security Council to engineer a political solution to the crisis via a series of peace accords and coercive Security Council resolutions have clearly failed. One explanation for this is that the conflict in C么te d'Ivoire is not a civil war, but a structured situation of 'neither war nor peace.' In such a context, the state of exception presented by the war-like situation has acted as justification by actors in both the north and south of the country to utilise and enlarge illicit economic networks ranging from the proceeds of ubiquitous security checkpoints to taxes levied on cocoa, coffee and cotton exports. This article gives a brief overview of the conflict and an inventory of the different international interventions so far utilised, and ends by reviewing what has worked or not, and why.


C么te d'Ivoire was ruled as a one-party state from independence in 1960 until its first multiparty elections in 1990, when President ?F茅lix Houphou毛t-Boigny won re-election, continuing in power until his death in 1993. C么te d'Ivoire had established itself as the world's biggest cocoa producer and a showcase for successful neocolonial economic and political cooperation between France and its former colonies. The unravelling of this Ivorian 'model' began long before a coup d'?tat unseated Houphou?t-Boigny's successor Henri Konan ?B茅di茅 in 1999, which shocked a country that had always prided itself on its political civility, and solidified a sense of crisis. Long-term opposition figure Laurent Gbagbo was brought to power through a popular revolt following the flawed elections of October 2000, in which major candidates had been excluded and the head of the military junta, General Robert Gue?, fraudulently declared himself winner. An unsuccessful coup attempt against the Gbagbo government in September 2002 devolved into several weeks of intense fighting, and quickly froze into a de facto partition of the country. Insurgent groups, coalescing under the title of Les Forces Nouvelles (FN), gained control of the northern 60 per cent of the country. Their legitimacy in the north derived largely from the way that both the B?di? and Gbagbo governments had treated northerners as second-class citizens, whether they were immigrants from neighbouring countries, descendants of immigrants or native to the territory that became C么te d'Ivoire. The government controlled the more economically viable southern portion, where nearly all cash crops, the country's ports and international airport, and offshore gas and oil reserves are located.

Peacekeepers, including approximately 4,000 from France and as many as 7,000 UN troops, patrolled a buffer zone called the zone de confiance (zone of confidence, first established in late 2002) and tried to quell periodic outbursts of intense violence followed by long periods of relative calm.

International interventions

The international interventions that ensued fall into a number of categories: the mediation of peace accords; UN Security Council resolutions; arms embargo, travel ban and assets freeze sanctions; investigations of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity; and the threat of further investigations, including by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Each has been used or threatened at different points in the conflict to bring the conflict protagonists into line with international humanitarian norms or to seek a political resolution to the conflict. As far as the design interventions were strategic or complementary, they formed part of an improvised strategy, but one built on the close attention paid to developments by, in particular, France, the Security Council and ECOWAS.

Negotiation and coercion

There have been four major sets of peace accords that aimed at disarming the rebels and redeploying the apparatus of the state in the north, while settling the political grievances said to be behind the conflict, such as the feeling of political exclusion of 'northern' Muslims at both the popular and elite levels. Starting with the French-mediated Linas-Marcoussis Accords of January 2003 (signed just four months after the outbreak of the war), these issues and several others were ostensibly settled by all parties, and their implementation was to be overseen by a government of national unity incorporating representatives of the rebels as well as those political parties that had been excluded from the 2000 elections.

Linas-Marcoussis was received with an immediate and violent reaction in Abidjan, where pro-Gbagbo Jeunes Patriotes (Young Patriots) destroyed such symbols of French presence as the French Cultural Centre. A virulent nationalist discourse that denounced France and Burkina Faso as supporting the rebels against the legitimate government fostered this violence and operated symbiotically with violent demonstrations, attacks on foreigners (both Africans and Europeans), and the development of a polarised public sphere, in which newspapers, human rights organisations, youth groups, and women's groups sprang up on both sides of the north-south divide, often contributing to rather than diminishing the spread of violence.

Subsequent accords mediated under the auspices of the AU and ECOWAS in Accra, Pretoria, and Ouagadougou have each been hailed as the possible solution to the country's underlying problems, though the solutions proposed in each case have been roughly the same: disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of rebel forces; reunification of the national territory; and identification of those without papers or whose identity had otherwise been called into question. As the existence of armed pro-Gbagbo militias became widely reported, then acknowledged by the government, their dismantling became a further condition of the accords, and after president Gbagbo's constitutional mandate ended in October 2005, transparent elections became the proposed endpoint of this process. While the Ouagadougou Peace Agreement of March 2007 between Gbagbo and FN leader Guillaume Soro is still in the process of being applied, all prior accords have fallen by the wayside.

There are several explanations for the failure of these accords, underpinned by the fact that major political actors agreed to them in bad faith in order to give themselves political room for manoeuvre and time to regroup and re-arm themselves. At the insistence of France and in consultation with ECOWAS and the AU, the Security Council has addressed this perception of bad faith in a number of ways. Resolutions 1633 and 1721 attempted to settle questions surrounding Gbagbo's constitutional mandate, whose term ended on 30 October 2005, which the opposition claimed rendered him illegitimate. Gbagbo's supporters claimed that he was entitled to serve indefinitely because of the exceptional circumstances of war and de facto partition of the country. The Security Council attempted to grant a one-time-only extension of one year, simultaneously diminishing the president's powers and transferring them to a new, more powerful Prime Minister. When elections still had not taken place by October 2006, the Security Council granted another (ostensibly one-off) extension. This expired in October 2007 with no elections, whereupon it became clear that the UN lacked either the will or the ability to back such threats with anything more than further threats. This was partly due to a lack of consensus among the mediators and Security Council members, with France, Britain and West African nations backing more coercive measures, and China and South Africa in particular opposing sanctions or other breaches of state sovereignty.

With the UN effectively losing credibility, influence and political leverage, Gbagbo did not wait for October 2007 to make this fact clear, but unceremoniously downgraded the UN mission's role from that of orchestrating the peace process to that of 'certifying' the steps in the process, and fired Charles Konan Banny, the international actors' chosen Prime Minister, replacing him with Soro, the erstwhile rebel leader. In this way, all prior Security Council resolutions were effectively rendered null and void. There was no reaction from the main external actors: France was keen to disengage from a politically and financially costly intervention; the Security Council was fatigued and prodded by the US, which wanted to know what the mission had to show for the billions of dollars already spent; while the new UN Secretary-General did not appear to have any particular engagement with the Ivorian dossier at that early point in his tenure.

Judicial interventions

A second and probably more effective form of international intervention specifically targeted the perception that war crimes and other human rights abuses had taken place on a large scale in C么te d'Ivoire. There were three UN Commissions of Inquiry which conducted research and put together reports on major atrocities first in December 2002-January 2003, next in April 2004, and finally in the period June-October 2004. None of these three reports was ever officially released, but all three were leaked. None of the leaked versions mentioned the names of those the commissions considered responsible for war crimes or human rights abuses, but in the case of the third report, diplomats close to the dossier have described a lengthy secret list that had been compiled for the sake of future action.

One of these commissions specifically investigated the massacres that took place in March 2004, when security forces allegedly killed large numbers of anti-Gbagbo protesters preparing to demonstrate by firing into crowds. Later, mixed groups of security forces and what the government described as 'parallel forces' hunted down 'northerners' presumed to be among the anti-Gbagbo demonstrators. The Commission's report stated that this had been a 'carefully planned and executed operation by the security well as special units and the so-called parallel forces, under the direction and responsibility of the highest authorities of the state.'

The three commissions effectively built the foundation for exerting political leverage over individuals through the implicit threat of prosecution for crimes they had committed. The possibility that prosecution might take place outside C么te d'Ivoire gave the threat more credibility still. An extension of this UN-sponsored process was the 2006 targeted sanction process represented by the UN Security Council's naming three Ivorian citizens to a travel ban and assets freeze list. The three individuals named were Charles Bl茅 Goud茅 and Euj茅ne Dju茅 of the 'Patriotic Galaxy,' and Col. Fofi茅 of the FN. This action was belatedly taken in reaction to the anti-UN attacks that took place in January 2006, in reaction to the strong line taken by the International Working Group and UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Pierre Schori, when they recommended that the National Assembly, whose mandate had run out without elections, should be dissolved. Bl茅 Goud茅 and Dju茅 had been identified for their inflammatory rhetoric, including on national television, and the role it had played in inciting violence from January 2003 onward. Col. Fofi茅 had been accused of overseeing an internal FN purge in June 2004. Prior Security Council resolutions had threatened targeted sanctions against those guilty of human rights abuses as well as against those who were obstacles to the peace process, and the naming of these three combined the two rationales.

A third site of judicial intervention was that of the ICC's opening a preliminary dossier on Ivorian war crimes and crimes against humanity. C么te d'Ivoire had signed but not ratified the Treaty of Rome, so the only way the ICC could assert jurisdiction over crimes committed in the country was by a Security Council referral. As President Gbagbo requested such a referral in an act of spectacular brinkmanship, the way was at least potentially open. Even the possibility of an ICC investigation called up visions of a Milosevic-like end for actors like Soro or Gbagbo himself, and the later extradition of Charles Taylor only made such a threat more credible.

A further legal institution that acted indirectly on the way various actors saw themselves in relation to the law was the tribunal system set up to try those who allegedly bore greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the wars and/or genocides that took place in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and in Sierra Leone. Most relevant to the Ivorian case was the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a hybrid national-international tribunal, established in January 2002 under the auspices of both the Security Council and the Sierra Leonean government. The SCSL operated alongside a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed (without prosecutorial powers) to unearth testimony regarding the abuses committed during the war.


In March 2007, President Gbagbo and Soro entered into a new compact as a result of the Ouagadougou Peace Agreement, which has been hailed as bringing together the two protagonists in the conflict, and thus having a better chance of success. Of course, the prior Pretoria Accords were hailed for finding an African solution to the problem, just as the original Linas-Marcoussis accords were said to have broached the political root causes of the conflict. If Ouagadougou goes the way of all the prior attempts to engineer peace in C么te d'Ivoire, it will have largely been due to the fact that the sanctions used have had little relation to the incentives existing for the conflict's protagonists to maintain the situation of 'neither peace nor war.' What has changed since January 2003, when France pressured all parties into signing the Linas-Marcoussis Accords, is that the Ivorian actors have waited out the international actors most committed to impose a peaceful resolution on the country: France's Jacques Chirac, the UN's Kofi Annan and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, among others. If the Ouagadougou agreement's requirement for identification for those without any papers, disarmament of the FN, dismantling of the pro-government militias, and elections are enacted in a largely symbolic manner, the root problems of the country that led to the war will not have been addressed, and it is likely that the country will return to violent conflict in the near to medium term.

Still, the international actors seem likely to approve of these superficial steps, which will allow them to draw down costly peacekeeping and diplomatic missions which have in any case been largely rendered redundant by the terms of the Ouagadougou agreement. If there is a positive side to this story, it is the fact that while Ivorian political actors succeeded in imposing their 'sovereign' right to pillage national wealth, international actors successfully placed limits on the types and extent of violence used in the pursuit of that wealth.