Côte d’Ivoire, between hope and renewed fears

Baule tribe of Côte d’Ivoire Baule tribe of Côte d’Ivoire © Google.com

Brice Kouewon, 34, from Côte d’Ivoire spent a third of his life as a refugee in neighbouring Liberia after leaving his home country for over a decade. His story is just one among many for a large number of Ivorian people.

In fact, for little more than a decade the West African State, the world’s first cocoa-producer, experienced a dire and bloody civil war which led to the displacement of about 34,000 Ivorians. Immediately after the death of long-running President Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, the state was devastated by a long-lasting series of civil protests and elections’ boycotts by the opposition. Long-standing ethnic and religious tensions were a reality further exemplified by the then-government’s attempt to rewrite the constitution to prevent opposers from running for president. With tensions escalating, the army mutinied on December 23, 1999, and Brig. General Robert Gueï, a former member of Houphouët-Boigny’s government, took control of the country. Despite pledging that legislative and presidential elections would be held by October 2000 and that he would not be a candidate, the General then changed his mind and instead ran for president. After a controversial election in which Gueï tried to manipulate the outcome of the vote, Laurent Gbagbo of the FPI (Ivorian Popular Front) managed to win the election. But Gbagbo’s government was not without discord, and culminated in a failed coup on September 19, 2002. Gueï, who the government claimed was behind the coup, was killed during the fighting. The failed coup fueled unrest and ignited civil war, leaving the country divided into the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south. Peacekeeping troops from France, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and later the United Nations (UN) created a buffer zone between rebels, known as the New Forces, and the Ivorian government troops. Three peace agreements were reached during the years, respectively in 2003, 2005 and 2007.The first two did not find the success hoped for. In April 2005, after the last cease-fire agreement between the Ivorian government and the rebels was reached, the terms of the treaty were not immediately implemented, the fighting resumed, and the elections scheduled for October 2005 were called off, leading to a further extension of Gbagbo’s mandate as president. In 2007, talks in Burkina Faso would result in a new power-sharing agreement signed by both sides, and a new transitional government was inaugurated. This time, Gbagbo remained president, while Guillaume Soro, a rebel leader, was named to the post of Prime Minister. The nascent transitional administration was faced with several difficult tasks, including dismantling the buffer zone, disarming rebel and pro-government militias, restructuring the defence and security forces, and preparing for presidential and legislative elections to be held within 10 months.

Once more, however, several problems caused yet another delay in the call for elections, but finally, on October 31, 2010, the polls  opened. Once again, the presidency was contested by Gbagbo, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, and former President Henry Konan Bédié. Gbagbo and Ouattara garnered the most votes, but, as neither candidate received a majority, a runoff election was scheduled. However, the second round of voting, held on November 28, 2010, did not go as well as the first. Prior to the release of results, in fact, Gbagbo announced his intent to challenge the outcome of the election, alleging fraudulent practices and instances of voter intimidation in the northern part of the country where Ouattara was popular. Finally, though international observers did not find that vote intimidation cited by Gbagbo was so widespread and deemed the election to be largely democratic, the Constitutional Council, asked by Gbagbo, cited evidence of numerous irregularities, discounted a portion of the results, and declared the former president the winner. Nevertheless, while Gbagbo was sworn in for another term, Ouattara  , who had international backing as well as the support of New Forces rebel troops that controlled the northern part of the country, also had himself sworn in as president, thus forming a parallel government. International pressure on Gbagbo to step down increased, and both ECOWAS and the African Union suspended the country’s membership in their respective organizations to protest his refusal to hand over power to Ouattara. As the stalemate continued to drag on, the Ivorian people and the economy suffered: tens of thousands were displaced by the crisis, and several allegations of human rights abuses were reported. Beginning in late February 2011, there was an escalation in violence. Fighting between pro-Gbagbo and rebel forces intensified, as did attacks by pro-Gbagbo forces on Ouattara supporters who were gathered at mass demonstrations. The existing humanitarian crisis was exacerbated when water and electricity supplies were cut to areas known to be rebel strongholds or supportive of Ouattara, the country’s northern region as well as areas in the country’s central and western parts. Rebel forces began to advance, taking towns in the government-controlled southern part of the State. By the end of March, the rebels controlled more than two-thirds of the country, including the designated capital Yamoussoukro. Battle for the de-facto capital of Abidjan, where Gbagbo was ensconced, took place over the course of the next couple of weeks. Finally, after UN and French forces began bombing specific targets belonging to Gbagbo’s forces, alongside his residence, on April 4 the president’s military leaders called for a cease-fire. Gbagbo was then arrested by rebels and Ouattara was finally able to begin serving as the effective head of state.

Ouattara sought to fulfill his electoral promises, and focused on rebuilding the crumbling nation’s economy, alongside trying to reunify its population and overcome the still deep-entrenched ethnic and political divides that were in place. He succeeded in these actions, particularly in the first, thus leading the country to experience one of the biggest economic growths in the entire West Africa region.

For this reasons, the UN, and UNHCR, based on an analysis of the situation in Côte d’Ivoire and consultations with the government and host country governments, finally determined that circumstances that had led Ivorians to flee their country no longer exist, thus advising an end to refugee status for most of them. However, those who still consider themselves at risk if they return, though a strict minority, can always request an exemption from the refugee status cessation procedure.







Author: Pasquale Candela; Editor: Valentina Cova

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