Bleak prospects in Ivory Coast: the Third Ivorian War (Guest post by Ilmari Käihkö)

As this researcher packed his things and returned to Monrovia the prospects in Ivory Coast require one more look. While I still regard Ble Goude’s victorious prophecy that I discussed in my previous post false in the sense that toppling Ouattara’s government will prove impossible, there is yet still a possibility that the same prophecy will be fulfilled: if victory is sought in an impossible situation the trick to succeed is to redefine victory. After all, is this not what everybody does? (For one fine contemporary example witness the downgrading of ambition of the US-led ISAF-coalition in Afghanistan)

What everyone in Grand Gedeh interested about the Ivorian situation say is that the Ivorian pro-Gbagbo rebels have learned from Ouattara and will, on the short and medium term attempt divide the country into two. After all Ouattara’s Forces Nouvelles controlled the northern part of Ivory Coast for about a decade until the elections at the end of 2011. In this respect it is very good to remember the official election results from the Independent Electoral Committee, which gave Ouattara 54.1 percent of the votes on the second round of voting. While clearly a majority, it is important to remember that the remaining votes, 45.9 percent to be exact, were given to Gbagbo. This means that almost half of the population supports the former president awaiting his trial in Hague, and that it is well possible to once again divide the country into two – a process that the political manipulation of ethnicity and citizenship make all too easy (and all too difficult to repair). If these attempts materialize, the future capital of the Gbagbo side will probably become the port of San Pedro, which also makes the territory economically sustainable. While I do not know what happened in Ouattara’s north, I presume they traded with the neighboring countries. In the same manner San Pedro would open the Western Ivory Coast to all the ports of the world.

What the strategy of the pro-Gbagbo camp will presumably become twofold: first, to weaken the Ouattara government with sporadic attacks against army barracks in order to get weapons and prisons in order to gain manpower and cause confusion. Several such attacks have already taken place in areas near Abidjan (here though one has to be reminded that it is unclear who exactly committed these attacks – pro-Gbagbo forces or disgruntled former Ouattara followers. Not all the incidents should be automatically attributed to pro-Gbagbo rebels without any evidence). The main thrust will though be done in the west, where the rebels must at some point try to change their tactics from hit-and-run to keeping ground. Even with the influx of “Northerners” into Western Ivory Coast following the elections, the majority of the population in this area still belongs to groups usually associated with supporting Gbagbo. The presence of the Liberian border gives a possibility of safe havens and support in local communities and refugee camps. Refugees are also a good target for mobilization due to their experiences, frustration and subsequent (if not already existing) political radicalization. The arrests of some (presumably former Gbagbo) people in the Ivory Coast military may also result in more military personnel joining the war against Ouattara. More alarming though is that these arrests have been accompanied by others targeting members of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which does not help the necessary political reconciliation.

Finally, there is Liberia itself. While the Liberian Minister of Defence already went on air and said that Liberians were not involved in the recent attack across the border near Toetown, this is not true: Liberians were involved, and no doubt will be involved even in the future. While the Minister bases his claim to the fact that the captured half a dozen “dissidents” that were crossing to Liberia were Ivorians (and no doubt to the other fact that Liberian involvement will be bad for Liberia internationally, not least in relation to Ouattara government that will require action), there were Liberians among those not captured. It is also very telling that after the arrival of the Ivorian reinforcements the rebels attempt to cross the border to Liberia, where some of them were arrested by the Liberian authorities. As with any good guerrillas, even these rebels understand how important safe havens are – and the best safe haven around is Liberia.

As with the overall number of the rebels fighting in Ivory Coast, the number of Liberians involved is not known. Most Liberian former fighters I know do not want to get involved with “the Third Ivorian War”, but despite their warnings and recommendations others do. The reason is very easy to retrace to poverty: as somebody stated in extreme frustration after spending several days going around and trying to find money for his children’s school fees, “anyone that comes and offers me money to go I’ll go”. Luckily this particular situation was resolved through peaceful means and the man remains in Liberia. Lack of education plays a major role here: almost all of the mercenaries of the Second Ivorian War I’ve met lack education and the ones that don’t lack work. This reflects the lack of both education and economic opportunities, but also the fact that war spoiled much for one generation of youth, stripping many of them from education opportunities. These factors are not only present in Grand Gedeh and the Southeast, as the newest fears include the spreading of the Liberian involvement on the Gbagbo side to the more populous Nimba county, which has traditionally been seen as supporting Ouattara. In any case, it is no wonder that some important people in Liberia see this generation as “lost”.

Others simply “love war – too much” and are ready to go where-ever possible. For instance, one former fighter living in Monrovia attempted to go to both Libya and Mali last year before ending up in Ivory Coast. This kind of activity is of course paid work, but to some also armed tourism as these regional recruiting networks offer the only possibility for many former fighters to travel and see the world (and earn quick money at the same time). The whereabouts of this man are currently unknown.

After capturing the Western Ivory Coast and dividing the country into two the pro-Gbagbo camp would presumably hope to get some kind of international recognition for their area, as happened with Ouattara: the “Zone of Confidence” upheld by the UN Operations in Côte d’Ivoire effectively separated the North from the South and deadlocked the situation militarily. If the ambitions of the pro-Gbagbo camp end in possessing half of the country this deadlock is fine. If not, controlling half of the country can be used as a stepping stone to fulfill the long-term goal of gaining control of the other half. Whether this is done militarily or politically does not really matter. Whether it will succeed is though another matter entirely, and is exactly why redefinition of victory may be immediately required.

While it is impossible to say what will happen in Ivory Coast one thing is almost certain: when I come here the next time I expect to find most of my Ivorian acquaintances in the same refugee camps and local communities where they remained when I left. They will certainly be either more radical or apathetic. With Liberians the situation will probably reflect the overall success of the struggle: not very keen to get themselves killed, many wait and see. If the fortunes turn a larger number of Liberians will no doubt get involved, possibly becoming a force multiplier on the rebel side. A smaller number will continue to be involved, even though a number have already jumped off the rocking boat. One former intelligence officer previously working for Charles Taylor recalled the beginning of the LURD insurgency in Lofa. While the insurgency became full-blown in 2000, it had already kindled for a few years, beginning after the elections that brought Taylor to power. This man’s estimation is very bleak: the insurgency in Ivory Coast will continue with sporadic hit-and-run attacks for a some time before exploding into a full civil war in 2013-2014. While this kind of vision has been seen as an “apocalyptic” one, it is also telling of the pessimistic way how many in Grand Gedeh see the overall future prospects. In any case, however the future will be, much more investigation and research remains to be done with this conflict, on both sides of the border.

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