Brinksmanship in the Ivory Coast

Attempting to cling to power, defeated Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has told the UN to pack up and leave.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 10:06

Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy


Tension has escalated in the Ivory Coast as President Lauren Gbagbo, who claims to have been re-elected president of the country despite his defeat in the November 28 elections to Alassane Ouattara (Gbagbo succeeded in having the Constiutional Council staffed by his cronies declare him the victor), has called for the departure of the UN peace keeping forces in the country. The mandate for these forces expires on December 20, 2010. These forces were originally stationed to stop the civil war that has been raging intermittently since 2002, install a coalition government and pave the way for democratic elections. They are currently protecting Ouattara who has set up his rival presidency in the Golf Hotel at Abidjan the capital.

Gbagbo who had attacked a French peace keeping force in 2004 because he resented their neutrality, repeated the tactic by having his supporters attack the UN base without inflicting any casualties.He charges the international forces with aiding the rebels. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has rejected a call for UN troops to leave because he denies Gbagbo's authority to issue such a request as did his former Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, a supporter of Ouattara and a leader of the anti-Gbagbo forces in the civil war. "This decision cannot be (implemented) as Mr. Gbagbo is no longer president," said Soro. "We find this approach by a defeated president president grotesque and ridiculous." 

While Gbagbo knows he is on flimsy grounds his call for the departure of the UN forces is a reasonable tactical measure from his perspective. Intervention in what is considered a civil war has always proven problematic under international law. By attacking the UN forces he is also relying on the UN forces history of timidity in such situations and the hope that it may sufficiently rattle the nations who are furnishing components to the UN force to withdraw the troops. As the UN Security Council must approve the extension of the UN peace keeping force Gbagbo perhaps is counting on China to throw a monkey wrench into the process. China has provided diplomatic cover to odious regimes on the African continent, most notably Sudan, that can furnish China with access to needed commodities.

Otherwise the international pressure against Gbagbo is ramping up. The European Union says it has agreed on targeted sanctions against Gbagbo and his allies notably a visa ban and an assets freeze. This will hurt, since Ivorian leaders have usually mixed the business of state with personal pleasure in accumulating vacation places in Europe, notably in France and Switzerland.

The U.S. State Department has joined the threat to impose targeted sanctions against President Gbagbo, his immediate family and circle of his relatives if he continued "to claim illegitimate power"

Despite Gbagbo's attempt to play the victim of western intervention he finds himself isolated in Africa as well. He has been told to leave by the Economic Community of West African States  that has suspended the Ivory Coast, as has the African Union.  While African leaders have occasionally shielded dictatorial leaders such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, this was usually due to nostalgia for their part in the anti-colonial struggle. Outarra, an economist who served in the IMF and in African organizations, commands more sympathy.

France, the former colonial power, had initially attempted to remain in the background, but President Nicolas Sarkozy became more assertive at the close of last week. Not only did France favor an asset freeze and a visa ban, Sarkozy also threatened Gbagbo with arraignment before the International Criminal Court. Sarkozy said Gbagbo was responsible for turning one of Africa's most stable nations into one where innocent people are shot in the streets by the president's supporters. He noted there are international courts to deal with such crimes.

Sarkozy was essentially telling Gbagbo that it's your choice. Go quietly into the sunset and enjoy your stash and retirement or face the loss of assets and perhaps a prison cell. Now we will have to wait to see if Gbagbo blinks or risks reigniting a civil war.