Unlike the missions in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, this West African conflict was
resolved quickly, preventing instead of inciting civil war
Supporters of Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara parade through Abidjan. By Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire -- When French helicopters scrambled in the skies above Côte d'Ivoire biggest city in April, many in and out of the country were loathe to watch France at it again, interfering in the affairs of a former colony in Africa. The gunships fired rockets through the night at military bases around Abidjan, blowing up arms depots that sent exploding munitions in every direction in a terrifying display of deadly fireworks.
Destroying these heavy arms was the basis of the intervention, authorized by the UN Security Council during the violent political crisis that had consumed the country in the preceding weeks. Much as missiles and air strikes had been unleashed on Libya only days beforehand under the pretext of protecting civilians, the international community had given the UN peacekeeping mission and its French support the go-ahead for what actually amounted to a regime change.
But unlike what happened in Libya -- or in Iraq or Afghanistan -- the intervention in Côte d'Ivoire worked. Within a week, former president Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to accept defeat in an election and plunged his country into a steadily escalating spiral of violence and repression, was in custody, and within two weeks the majority of his forces had surrendered or rallied to the new President's side.
As Arab spring uprisings against firmly installed dictators multiplied across North Africa and the Middle East, the world may have overlooked the short war in Côte d'Ivoire, but it stands as an instructive case study in international intervention, one which was swift, decisive and -- most importantly -- avoided what would surely have been a far-worse outcome.
In the days following Gbagbo's arrest, I walked through the basement of his presidential palace, stepping over the discarded uniforms and weapons of the soldiers who had fled only hours before. Behind the kitchens and the laundry rooms were stacks of green crates, over eight feet long, with yellow Cyrillic stenciling on the ends. More than 500 of them in total, each wooden crate contained a single Katyusha rocket, capable of being fired in salvos of 15 from truck-based launchers, traveling up to 12 miles and exploding with an astonishing kill zone of 24 acres. If unleashed, these weapons would have killed untold thousands and were assuredly -- in all but name -- weapons of mass destruction.
Once it became evident that rebel forces were incapable of finishing the job themselves, an international intervention was the only thing that stood between Gbagbo and a prolonged civil war. The results of similar wars are still evident in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. Many long-time observers of West Africa point out that Ivory Coast is a key stone in this arch of mini-states, and that removing stability here could bring the whole region crashing down (again).
I moved to Côte d'Ivoire in January 2010 as a freelance reporter on a modest retainer with the Associated Press. I had the time to get acquainted with the country, culture, and people before the long-postponed elections finally took place at the end of October. I rumbled along dusty roads following the campaigns. I camped out in front of the electoral commission for three days awaiting results. I, like many others, was shocked when both candidates claimed victory. The widely held hope that this election would bring a lasting peace to the region slowly evaporated over the course of the subsequent months amid the hardening rhetoric, the hate propaganda on television, the police repression, and the arming of the population.
Terrorizing the supporters of democratically elected president Alassane Ouattara was a process that began slowly, with rumors of masked men arriving at his party members' houses at night. These "death squads" would threaten and beat their targets, later returning to take the person away. Bodies began to turn up around town. City morgues, ordered not to release any corpses, filled up with bullet-ridden bodies, the tell-tale stench perceptible from blocks away.
The streets were progressively occupied by police checkpoints. Encounters with elite units such as the Cecos and the BAE (the equivalent of the Military Police and SWAT team) became commonplace.
In pro-Gbabo neighborhoods, people took matters into their own hands, dishing out brutal local justice. Barricades manned by Young Patriots -- an umbrella term for violent pro-Gbagbo youth -- would stop passersby and accuse anyone with a foreign sounding name of being a Ouattara supporter, or rebel, and many were burned alive. Lynchings became so commonplace that a quasi-official sounding law was invented. All rebels stopped at Young Patriots roadblocks were summarily condemned under "Article 125," so named because of the cost of the sentence: 100 francs for gasoline and 25 francs for matches. Even today, months after Gbagbo's arrest, black grease patches stain the city roads, marking the places where people were set alight.