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.
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.