What Lindsay Lohan and Cote D’Ivoire Have In Common

Posted: March 15, 2011 in Armed Conflict, Sub-Saharan Africa

Ready for another cheesy Charlie Sheen/Qaddafi joke?

Well I’m not giving it to you. However, what’s a hot mess that’s being ignored by the foreign policy establishment?

If your answer was Lindsay Lohan you aren’t completely wrong…but I was going for Cote D’Ivoire.

In all seriousness, Cote D’Ivoire’s civil war (yes, I do think we can call it that at this point), is an important foreign policy challenge that isn’t getting enough attention from policymakers.

How We Got Here

Since December, Laurent Gbagbo’s regime has conducted a campaign of mass intimidation, torture, and murder. The international community universally agreed that he lost November’s elections to Alassane Ouattara, elections which had already been delayed for five years. However, Cote D’Ivoire’s Constitutional Council, composed completely of Gbagbo’s men, overturned the ruling of the Independent Election Commission, declaring him the winner. Despite sanctions from the West and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West Africa States), suspension from the West African franc, and admonitions by the UN Security Council and African Union, Gbagbo has refused to go. His opponent has been kept safe in a hotel protected by 800 UN soldiers. The same can’t be said for the nearly 400 people who have been killed by Gbagbo’s henchmen since the election.

The situation has already broken the cold peace between north and south established when Cote D’Ivoire’s last civil war officially ended. Troops from the north (nominally tied to Ouattara), have already begun moving south and west and have reportedly taken territory on the border with Liberia. The fighting may not have reached Abidjan and it may not yet be as intense as 2002-2007 but it certainly constitutes a civil war.

The Danger of Regional War

Despite what some sovereignty purists might have you believe, this crisis does present a clear threat to international peace and security. Civil wars in Sub-Saharan Africa have a tendency of quickly becoming international, devastating an entire region. In the 1990s, neighboring Liberia’s civil war instigated an equally brutal conflict in Sierra Leone. Today, it is Liberia who is under threat from a neighboring nation with over 75,000 Ivorian refugees already in the country and more pouring in every day, according to the UN. Some have reported that disaffected Liberian youth have crossed the border in the other direction hoping to find “work” as a part of a militia. Already, there have been disputes in Liberia’s border towns as residents, who experienced their own horror only a few years ago, become increasingly troubled by the diversion of scarce resources. Liberia, which ranks in the bottom 10 according to the Human Development Index, can scarcely afford more needy people or another bloody conflict.

The AU’s Test

Cote D’Ivoire is also a crucial challenge for the African Union which is currently divided on the issue. A recent summit proposed a unity government with Ouattara at its head and Gbagbo gone. This type of power sharing has “worked” in Kenya but has proven an utter failure in Zimbabwe. With the added element of two armed factions, it is easy to see why the AU went for the option meant to establish peace as quickly as possible, even at the expense of upholding the people’s will. But is the AU sending the wrong message to dictators? This is now the third instance when a strong-man has held an election, lost, decided to ignore the results, and been rewarded with power (in this case the strong-man’s party would still be rewarded). Is it not time for the regional body, and particularly some of its strongest members (we’re looking at you South Africa) to make a stronger case for democracy?

Even more importantly, this crisis may be a dress rehearsal for what many predict could be a disaster in Nigeria. Similarly divided between north and south along religious and ethnic lines, a disputed election result could unleash untold suffering.  As a frame of reference, the occasional bout of sectarian violence in Nigeria has ended in the deaths of 400 people in a week or two…that’s the total estimated death toll for the 3 months of crisis in Cote D’Ivoire. If the AU flubs this crisis, there is little hope that it will be of any use in the event of an electoral dispute in Africa’s most populous nation.

What Next?

A recent International Crisis Group report details the steps that need to be taken to ensure that the crisis does not break out into [a worse] war. We can start with African leadership, particularly Jacob Zuma, taking a much more prominent stance against Gbagbo. What would be even more helpful would be Zuma pressuring his friends in Angola to stop funding the current regime. The U.S. has been right to offer assistance to aid agencies working in both Cote D’Ivoire and Liberia, but it and the broader donor community need to offer more. China, which seeks to demonstrate itself as a good actor in Africa should be a little freer handing out those “unconditional” dollars in cases like this. The UN also needs to strengthen the mandate of its missions in both Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire so that peacekeepers are given the freedom to actually keep the peace.

We’ve already failed at preventing another civil war in Cote D’Ivoire. What policymakers need to focus on now is how to make it shorter and less brutal than the last one.


  1. Demetri says:

    Dan, thanks for bringing this issue to my attention… What do you the chance is that Zuma actually steps up?

    • Dan says:

      Hey Demetri – To be honest, Zuma’s track record is pretty bad when it comes to pressuring African leaders (Zimbabwe being a primary example). South Africa has been more willing to be assertive outside of Sub-Saharan Africa (they voted for the UN Security Council resolution on Libya). However, I’m not sure what could push them to be more constructive in Cote D’Ivoire. Maybe with some pressure from the United States and South African human rights groups or a little “naming-and-shaming” from respected countries like Ghana and Botswana, things could change…but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

      Apologies for taking so long to reply.

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