Abidjan – When security forces in Ivory Coast opened fire on unarmed female protesters yesterday in the economic capital, Abidjan, killing at least six, it highlighted just how close the West African nation is to renewed civil war.
An estimated 365 people have died and hundreds of thousands have fled since President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to his internationally recognised rival Alassane Ouattara after November’s elections.
The elections were supposed to heal the wounds of the 2002 civil war, which split the country into the rebel-controlled north, where Ouattara draws most of his support, and the government-held south. Instead, they have pushed the country back to the brink.
For the first few months of the crisis, the former northern rebel group New Forces held its fire as Ouattara and his prime minister – New Forces leader Guillaume Soro – seemed to pin their hopes on international diplomacy and sanctions removing Gbagbo.
Now, after months of stalemate, the New Forces appeared to be getting involved, a development that has worried many observers.
According to the UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, which was brought in to patrol the border after the civil war, at least 50 people have died in fighting between the New Forces, militia groups and pro-Gbagbo troops in the past week.
Much of the fighting has taken place in Abobo, a poor suburb dominated by Ouattara supporters and the scene of the massacre of the female protesters.
Witnesses said the women were singing and marching with their hands in the air to show they were unarmed when security forces – who, some claimed, were fearful that rebels were hiding among the demonstrators – sprayed the crowd with automatic weapons fire.
Abobo is now virtually sealed off. Residents said bodies are littering the streets and food and water is running low.
Hamadoun Toure, spokesperson for the peacekeeping mission, said its troops would try to open a humanitarian corridor to allow bodies to be removed and supplies brought in.
The mission “will also ask the two parties to observe a truce in Abobo, so that people can be provided with water and food,” he said.
The UN Refugee Agency said the Abobo clashes and fighting in the west had “brought the country perilously close to all-out civil war” and led to at least 70?000 people fleeing to neighbouring Liberia alone.
The International Crisis Group said it believed a return to war was “imminent”.
“The most likely scenario is an armed conflict involving massive violence against civilians that could provoke unilateral military intervention by neighbours,” said the policy research group’s West Africa project director, Gilles Yabi.
Almost unanimous agreement exists outside Ivory Coast that the only way forward is to remove Gbagbo from power, but doing so would be easier said than done.
International and domestic pressure, including economic sanctions and a ban on cocoa exports ordered by Ouattara, has achieved little.
African Union mediation efforts have proven equally fruitless with disunity and fallouts between the Union, the West African regional bloc Ecowas and individual member states hampering the process.
Amid all the talking, Gbagbo has been attempting to tighten his grip on power. On Wednesday, international radio stations were taken off the air, and power was cut to the north of the country.
While the crisis rumbles on, the West African nation’s economy is crumbling. Banks have closed, prices for basic goods are sky-rocketing and civil servants have found their wages are not being paid.
The International Crisis Group urged African states to show unity, calling in particular on South Africa to back down from its stance that power-sharing is an option and on the UN peacekeeping force to enforce its mandate to protect civilians.
However, the group said it believes the best chance to prevent a full-scale conflict is for Ecowas to take the lead and return to its earlier threat to send in a regional force to remove Gbagbo.
“To prevent this [civil war], Ecowas must reclaim responsibility for political and military management of the crisis with the unequivocal support of the African Union and the United Nations,” Yabi said.