On the short and unappealing list of tools that the world might use to push out Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to leave office after losing reelection has sparked weeks of violence, begging and sanctions are the only two we're currently trying. That's partly because the other options floated so far -- an African Union invasion, fomenting a coup in the Ivorian military, encouraging north-based rebel groups to take up arms -- are bereft of international support for the very good reason that they could spark civil or regional war. With the United Nations voting to send 2,000 additional peacekeepers, that risk is already high enough. But it's also because economic sanctions have become a go-to method when world leaders, especially multinational groups such as the United Nations, want to pressure a rogue nation's leadership. After all, sanctions are peaceful but powerful, and can quickly make their target -- in this case, Gbagbo -- both personally poorer and politically weaker. But when sanctions try to force their target to step down from power, as the world would like Gbagbo to do, they have a discouraging track record, and can in fact make things worse. Of course, dropping sanctions wouldn't make him any more willing to leave, either. But sanctions against Côte d'Ivoire could backfire, ultimately making Gbagbo less likely to step down and possibly hurting the Ivorian people in the process.
The hope is that sanctions will do three things: impoverish Gbagbo and his entourage, weaken his control over the military that keeps him in power, and foster anti-Gbagbo sentiment among regular Ivorian people outraged that their president's misbehavior has made them poorer. The first of these three aims has never posed much of a problem for sanctioned dictators, who are generally happy to steal out of the national budget to replace their lost wages. Gbagbo has already begun scrounging the budget to pay the military, some of which subsidizes its own income the developing world way, with routine small-scale extortion and bribe solicitation. Even if Gbagbo has to cut expensive national defense programs, he will have little trouble hiring enough guns to continue suppressing the opposition. West Africa's brutal wars of the 1990s produced an army of heavily armed, battle hardened, deeply impoverished would-be mercenaries. In neighboring Liberia, such men are already gathering near the border in the hopes that Gbagbo will hire them.
Beyond Gbagbo and his military, sanctions also target the Ivorian people, who, it is hoped, will blame Gbagbo for the sanctions making them poorer, thus eroding his support and growing the popular opposition. Specifically, this means reaching Côte d'Ivoire's middle class. From the French revolution through the protests last week in Tunisia, middle classes are the driving force behind nearly all popular uprisings and democratic movements. While Côte d'Ivoire's small but rapidly growing middle class has been an important component of domestic opposition, it's not clear that sanctions would agitate them so much as destroy them outright.
The unusual structure of Côte d'Ivoire's economy, one of the strongest in the region, makes the middle class especially vulnerable to sanctions and Gbagbo especially protected. The country's economy is built on two crucial exports -- cocoa and oil -- which feed the lower class, enrich the regime, and in recent years have helped lift many Ivorians to the middle class by funding, for example, a burgeoning manufacturing sector. But because many of Côte d'Ivoire's financial institutions are jointly controlled by France, from which it never became wholly economically independent, and because Côte d'Ivoire shares a Euro-like currency with seven other West African nations, economic isolation could effectively reset the country's economy to zero. Were its international debts called in and its national banks suddenly forced to devise a new currency, both consumer imports and manufacturing exports could halt overnight. Côte d'Ivoire's nascent middle class, one of Sub-Saharan Africa's great success stories, could shatter. In the short term, this would remove much of Gbagbo's popular opposition. In the long-term, reversing the growth of the middle class risks exacerbating an Ivorian decline that could last far longer than the 65-year-old Gbagbo.
Even in the face of sanctions, some of the cocoa and oil trades so crucial to regime stability would likely continue. Much like the "conflict diamonds" smuggled into Liberia during the Sierra Leone civil war, analysts already expect Côte d'Ivoire to smuggle cocoa across the Ghanaian border, where local farmers could sell it as their own. While this added burden would cut back how much the country could export, it would give Gbagbo's government more control over the trade and thus a greater share of the profits. As for oil, if there is any oil-rich despot that China will not buy from, he has yet to appear. Two months after voting for harsh sanctions against Iran in 2009, oil-hungry China invested $40 billion in the oil industry there. With oil prices projected to rise dramatically this summer, China will be eager for bargains.
A similar pattern of self-reinforcing failure has plagued the global community's sanctions campaign pressuring Burma, where a military junta has ruled for a half-century, to hold free elections. But allowing an election would be the same thing as abdicating, as the Burmese regime learned when the opposition swept a 1988 election, which the junta quickly annuled. Thant Myint-U, a prominent Burmese historian and pro-democracy figure recently told the New Yorker that the Burmese democratic movement's greatest error may have been pinning its hopes on international sanctions. Thant said they believe that "help from the West--through a mix of sanctions and diplomacy--would somehow force the regime to bargain." According to the New Yorker's paraphrase, Thant fears that sanctions "may have entrenched the regime and slowed the pace of reform." Exacerbating the problem, Burma replaced its lost trade by cutting deals with China (as other countries have done in response to UN sanctions), leaving the West with few remaining carrots or sticks to influence regime behavior. Perhaps most damaging of all, the sanctions have crippled Burma's middle class, which Thant called "probably the people on whom any democratic transition would depend."
Sanctions have a long history of failing to oust despots, often making them even more despotic. It's true that sanctions would reduce Gbagbo's popular support and further enrage his opposition. But if the man refuses to abdicate, what choice does he have but to entrench? As supporters turn apathetic and opponents take to the streets, Gbagbo will continue to crack down, in a brutal and self-reinforcing cycle that we've seen many times and in many countries. As his authority becomes more dependent on force, that's exactly what he'll use. Every crackdown will inspire more dissent, every dissenter inviting another crackdown. Sanctions, by making the regime more desperate and protesters more numerous, risk accelerating the cycle of unrest and crackdown, entrenching Gbagbo behind his military and slowly building yet another police state.
Many of the modern world's most violent and most sanctioned autocrats -- Iraq's Saddam Hussein, North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- became more oppressive over time. No matter how poor sanctions have made their countries, not one of these dictators liberalized, stepped down, or succumbed to a popular uprising. To be fair, sanctions can be remarkably effective at curbing regime misbehavior. After Saddam Hussein's horrific Al-Anfal massacres of the 1980s, sanctions forced him to step back his genocidal campaign and ultimately abandon his quest for weapons of mass destruction. United Nations sanctions against Iran have dramatically slowed that country's crawl towards a nuclear program. Libya's Muammar Qaddafi dismantled his country's nuclear program altogether and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir has finally allowed the south to vote on secession. With the right incentives, even the nastiest regimes will compromise. But few ever willingly choose to step down.
There's no magic solution to a problem like Laurent Gbagbo. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, of course. If the African Union is lucky, it might secure something like the deals it struck after similar post-election crises in Kenya and Zimbabwe, where the election's rightful winner joined in a "unity" government with the incumbent who, like Gbagbo, refused to leave. But history suggests that trying to oust Gbagbo altogether through broad, sustained sanctions could do more harm than good.
Image: Ivorian workers empty bags of cocoa beans in a container on January 18,
2011 at the Port of Abidjan where 80% of Ivory Coast's exports transit.
EU-registered ships have been barred from dealing with Ivory Coast's
main cocoa ports in line with sanctions over the nation's controversial
November presidential pol. By Issouf Sanogo/Getty Images.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.