Limits of the possible

2011-01-05 00:00

"IT'S not a bluff," said an adviser to Alassane Ouattara, the real winner in November's presidential election in Ivory Coast, who is now besieged in a hotel in Abidjan, the capital, under United Nations protection. "The [African Union] soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks." But it is a bluff and the AU is just undermining its own credibility by threatening to use force.

The incumbent president, Laurent­ Gbagbo, who stole the Ivory Coast election by getting the Constitutional Council (headed by a crony) to invalidate many of Ouattara's votes, still controls the capital and the army. His actions have been condemned by the United Nations (UN), the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the United States and the European­ Union (EU), but getting him out will not be easy.

Gbagbo, once a history professor and a pro-democracy campaigner, has latterly turned himself into the self-appointed defender of the Christian people in the southern half of Ivory Coast. Now he says: "I do not believe at all in a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue as they have, they will push towards war, confrontation."

He knows about civil war, because one broke out two years after­ he was elected president in 2000. Military mutineers, mostly Muslim troops from the north who didn't want to be demobilised and lose their jobs, attempted to seize power in Abidjan.

They were quickly defeated in the capital, but other Muslim troops took control all across the north. French troops blocked them from moving south and after a couple of months the divided country settled into the sullen cease-fire that has lasted for the past eight years. The civil war that Gbagbo is warning about would be the second round, not the first.

Then why doesn't he just accept his electoral defeat and quit? Partly because he just wants to stay in power, of course, but it's not as simple as that. He has real support among the Christians of the south, because many of them see Ouattara as the democratic facade­ of a Muslim takeover bid that began with the military mutiny­ in 2002.

The north-south division in Ivory­ Coast is real. The country has shifted from a narrow Christian majority 25 years ago to a Muslim majority today — and it has done so largely through illegal immigration from the much poorer, entirely Muslim countries to the north — Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

About four million of the 21 million people now living in Ivory Coast are illegal immigrants, and almost all of those immigrants are Muslims. It has changed the electoral balance, because many of them register to vote, especially in the north of the country where they speak the same languages as the local citizens. Southerners are afraid that they will lose control, and so they back Gbagbo.

It's really a rich-poor problem, not a Christian-Muslim problem. The country's agricultural resources, particularly the cocoa plantations that make Ivory Coast the wealthiest country in West Africa­, are mainly in the south. Southerners think that a northern-led government would divert a lot of that income to the north, and they are probably right.

That would only be fair, but southerners also believe that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were allowed to register in the north and that they all voted for Ouattara. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they believe it. So the November election didn't solve the Ivorian problem; it exacerbated it.

The AU is determined to force Gbagbo to accept the election outcome because it wants to break with the past and make democratic elections the norm in Africa. It has had some recent successes in thwarting military coups, but the situation in Ivory Coast is a lot murkier and direct intervention by the AU would be a lot harder.

Armchair generals in the AU and Ecowas talk boldly of military intervention to drive Gbagbo from power, referencing the successful operations to end civil wars in Liberia­ and Sierra Leone in recent years. But Ivory Coast is five times bigger and richer than either of those countries and its army can actually fight.

Besides, where would the AU and Ecowas find enough African troops to intervene effectively? Only Nigeria is big enough, but it is most unlikely to commit a lot of troops this year to what might be a real war in Ivory Coast. This is an election year in Nigeria and body bags coming home as the voters go to the polls are rarely a vote-winner.

The U.S. and the EU have already imposed sanctions on Gbagbo­'s government and the Central Bank of West African States has blocked his access to Ivory Coast's account.

These are measures that will work slowly, if at all, but there is no alternative. Starting a war is rarely a good idea. Starting an unwinnable one never is.

• Gwynne Dyer's latest book Climate Wars is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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