The situation in Cote d’Ivoire took a turn for the unexpected yesterday, when UN and French forces began shelling Gbagbo’s positions in Abidjan. It’s indeed very rare for UN peacekeepers to engage in direct military action, even under a Chapter VII mandate like ONUCI’s. It’s interesting that, for months, ECOWAS and the African Union vaguely threatened military action if incumbent Laurent Gbabgo continued to refuse stepping down, but nothing ever came out of these threats. As far as I can tell, no analysts were expecting the UN and France to attack Gbagbo’s key positions in Abidjan from the air, even following attacks from Gbagbo loyalists on the UN compound.
- Gbagbo’s army chief, General Mangou, has called for a cease-fire. This is the same general who last week deserted Gbagbo and sought refuge in the South African embassy, and then came back. High-level defections of this kind show just how fragile Gbagbo’s hold on power is at this stage.
- At the time of writing, Reuters is displaying a “breaking news” banner saying that French Prime Minister is confirming that two of Gbagbo’s generals are “negotiating his surrender.” Earlier on, Alassanne Ouattara’s ambassador to Paris had suggested the same thing, but Gbagbo aides had denied it. Meanwhile, Gbagbo’s foreign minister confirmed that he was at the residence of the French ambassador to negotiate a cease-fire. Confusingly, a lawyer for Gbagbo’s government is now quoted as saying that the foreign minister is being held “against his will” at the French residence.
- At this stage, it’s clear that Gbagbo is beginning to show serious signs of weakness. Negotiations taking place now are critical, and will hopefully put an end to hostilities. The situation remains extremely tense and unpredictable.
- Abidjan is, for all intents and purposes, under siege. Pro-Ouattara forces entered the city late last week, after taking over key positions around the country. Doctors Without Borders report that they are on lock-down, that cars cannot move around the city. People are having difficulty accessing food and water.
- UN helicopters attacked a military camp (Agban) in the north of the city, while four french helicopters from Operation Licorne took aim at another military camp in the north-eastern part of the city (Akouedo). Gbagbo’s residence, as well as the presidential palace, were also targeted by international attacks.
- UN Security Council resolution 1975, adopted on March 30, allowed UNOCI “to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and its areas of deployment, including to prevent the use of heavy weapons used against the civilian population.”At the time, Nigerian Ambassador Joy Ogwu noted, somewhat ominously, “in my view, the die is cast by this resolution.”
- Whatever happens next, it will be difficult for Cote d’Ivoire to find peace again. The violent clashes between pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo supporters have resulted in mass displacement, deepening already existing tensions between various groups in the country and creating a dire human security situation for hundreds of thousands of people both in Cote d’Ivoire and neighboring Liberia. Reconciliation will not be easy. Ouattara, in spite of his legitimate mandate, will have a difficult time getting Gbagbo supporters to trust him and work with him.
- Gbagbo and his supporters have been relying on a narrative that puts France and the UN in the role of meddling forces, attempting to get rid of him to put their “puppet” ruler, Alassanne Ouattara, in place. The recent attacks play into the hands of this narrative, and even if Gbagbo leaves power, leaves the country, his warnings will ring true to many who feel that Cote d’Ivoire is the target of neo-colonial, illegitimate powers.
UPDATE, 2pm EST: Reuters reports that Gbagbo has stepped down.