It's hard to say when the case for a military intervention can be made, when exactly things went from deplorable to unacceptable. Between December and March, life in the city continued as best it could. People learned to cope with the roadblocks and the heavy security presence, the disappearances and the occasional body on the side of the road. The world, however, started to take notice once the killing came out into the light of day.
In mid-February, I was reporting on a pro-Ouattara march in the densely populated slum of Treichville. Police had opened fire on the crowd, sending people running for any available doorway. Standing outside a clinic where family members were bringing the wounded, we could hear bursts of fire continue sporadically. Nurses were attempting to calm people down when a Cecos machine gun-mounted pickup truck pulled up and began firing without even taking the time to survey the scene. Old women and children scattered but had nowhere to go. I dove behind a car while others tried to force their way into the clinic. The pickup was gone as fast as it came. No one appeared to have been hit, until about 20 minutes later when a man in his twenties, now no more than a rag doll, the right half of his face destroyed, was carried in from a few blocks away.
There were other, higher profile incidents. The machine-gunning of seven women at a peaceful women's march, again by uniformed police firing from their vehicles. The mortar attack of a busy marketplace that claimed the lives of 30 people, most of whom weren't involved in an act any more political than buying or selling vegetables.
But the case for intervention wasn't based on Gbagbo's brutality alone; it was also an attempt to "enforce" democracy. Gbagbo may have come to power as a champion of African democracy. But as Howard French wrote in the immediate aftermath of the election, "all that remains of this tradition is its cheap, shopworn hand-me-down version, whose sentiments have turned petty, vicious and xenophobic." Gbagbo had lost an election in which he had agreed to allow the UN to oversee the vote count. He then refused to give up power and turned the state's security forces against the population, killing at least 500 people and forcing more than a million to flee. Once youth were enlisted en masse into the army and AK-47 assault rifles were distributed to Young Partriots, the scene had been set for an all out civil war
Four months to the day after Ouattara's election, he got fed up with the endless international mediations that were leading nowhere and ordered the rebel forces who had rallied to his side to begin advancing from the north of the country. They met virtually no resistance and captured nearly the entire country in three days, arriving on the doorstep of Abidjan and calling for Gbagbo's surrender. But try as they might to take the city, Gbagbo had kept his best fighters closest and repelled wave after wave of assaults against his residence.
While the UN mission has been operating under its most aggressive rules of engagement, known as a "Chapter 7" mandate, since it began in 2004, it had routinely avoided intervening in the post-electoral crisis. Local mission chief Choi Young-jin simply certified the results showing that Ouattara had won, and then sat back and hoped Ivorians, and later African mediators, would be able to work things out. But with hostilities in the open, and no clear resolution in sight, UN and French forces swung into action, bombing the military bases where Gbagbo's tanks and artillery were stocked. Even then, Ouattara's rag-tag rebels couldn't take the palace.
Had the rebels been left to their own devices, Gbagbo's heavily armed soldiers would have almost surely turned Abidjan into a bloodbath, strong enough as they were to hold out, but not strong enough to turn the rebels back.
A second attack was launched, bombing Gbagbo's guard towers and last lines of defense. Then, with a French armored column securing the area, Ouattara's soldiers were escorted to the very door of Gbagbo's house. They pulled him from his burning bunker, slid a bulletproof vest over his head and paraded him out in front of the cameras. The battle of Abidjan had lasted 12 days.
Now, almost two months later, the streets of Abidjan are bustling. The marketplaces have reopened and life is returning to normal. Pro-Gbagbo police officers are back on patrol, working for their new president. If it weren't for the bullet holes on the facades of buildings and the torn election posters yellowing on lampposts, you could almost say that every trace of the crisis has been erased.
While the ongoing reprisals and revenge killings carried out by the new president's forces are a serious problem, they amount to neither an illegitimate power grab nor an attempt to drag the entire country into war. Justifying war is a dangerous thing, and the estimated 3000 deaths will remain a national trauma. But in Côte d'Ivoire, a military operation put the breaks on an escalating situation that was turning out far worse. It was an intervention we might learn from, especially before attempting regime change again.
It took less than two weeks. It removed Gbagbo from power only once it became evident that local opposition could not. And in doing so, it prevented those missiles in Gbagbo's basement from being employed against innocent civilians.