Côte d'Ivoire's civil war Coming to a crunch, Rebel troops are gaining ground
SKIRMISHES in Côte d’Ivoire between political rivals have grown into a full-blown civil war. Rebel forces allied to the winner of last year’s presidential election are sweeping through the country from the west, causing 1m people to flee their homes, many of them to neighbouring countries. West African governments are under increasing pressure to intervene.
For the moment, the forces allied to last year’s election winner, Alassane Ouattara, are on the offensive. They have advanced on several fronts and claim to control two-thirds of the country, including the towns of Bouaflé and Sinfra. Fighting was also reported in Bouna and Bondoukou. As The Economistwent to press, the rebels had taken Yamoussoukro, the capital, and the port of San Pedro. Now the commercial capital, Abidjan, in the south-east, is in their sights.
But the fighting is far from over. Forcibly dislodging Laurent Gbagbo, the defeated president, from his palace in Abidjan may come at a high price. His men are supported by mercenaries and are better armed. Mr Gbagbo has called for mediation and a ceasefire, but given no public sign that he is prepared to step down.
A summit meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on March 24th implored the UN to mandate its forces to stop the fighting. The regional block failed to dispatch its own vaunted force, the only step likely to end the conflict in the short run. Mr Ouattara has called for it, but Ghana and the Gambia objected. Their motives are murky. The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, is an old chum of Mr Gbagbo, and Ghana makes money from the conflict. Its smugglers have taken over much of the Ivorian cocoa trade, which has been crippled by the imposition of UN sanctions.
A further obstacle to action from ECOWAS is Nigeria. The only west African state with the military beef to lead an intervention is generally in favour of dispatching peace-making troops but is preoccupied with its own elections this month. But the fighting in Côte d’Ivoire is intensifying so ferociously that Nigerian leaders may have to turn aside from campaigning in the interest of regional stability.
The African Union has been trying for months to persuade Mr Gbagbo to go, but some governments still support him. At the UN the appetite for involvement in African civil wars has been sated for the moment by its intervention in Libya. ECOWAS is Côte d’Ivoire’s best—and perhaps last—hope of avoiding the fate of Angola, where a disputed election in 1992 reignited a long-running civil war and fuelled it for another decade.
West African countries have a history of drawing their neighbours into their civil wars and many now fear the Ivorian rot will spread with the refugees streaming out of the country. Some neighbours are already suffering. Three million ethnic Burkinabes, a sixth of Burkina Faso’s population, live in Côte d’Ivoire and many have started to leave. Mali and Ghana too are facing an influx of refugees.
But worst affected country so far is Liberia, which ended its own civil war only in 2003. Its feeble economy is strained by 100,000 newly arrived Ivorians. The most recent lot could make trouble. Unlike the first to arrive, they are not all ethnic kin of the local population, which supported Mr Ouattara. Some of the refugees around the town of Janzon are wearing campaign T-shirts endorsing Mr Gbagbo. There are fears that the refugees might ignite long-simmering ethnic tensions. Graham Greene once wrote that during travels in Liberia’s troubled hinterland he “learnt to love life again”. Few Ivorians seem likely to concur.