Attrition: That Didn't Turn Out Too Well


March 7, 2011: Ivory Coast has suffered over 400 dead in the last few months, as the loser in a recent election disputes that outcome. Actual losses may be 2-3 times higher, because journalists and other investigators are getting shot at. More than 250,000 people have fled the violence. The most important export, cocoa, has become increasingly difficult to get out of the country because of the increasing violence. Thus the price of cocoa has hit a 32 year high of over $3,700 a ton. It was not supposed to work out this way.

Despite a four year long ceasefire, and recent elections foreign observers declared free and fair, Ivory Coast has been sliding once more into civil war. The presidential elections, held four months ago, were won by the northern (rebel) candidate (former prime minister Alassane Ouattara). Laurent Gbagbo, who won a legitimate election in 2000, declared the vote a fraud, and had himself declared the winner, with 51 percent of the vote. But the foreign observers and the UN insisted that Ouattara had won with 54 percent. While Ouattara has the support of most of the people, Gbagbo has the support of most of the people with guns, and those guns are increasingly used against anyone who openly opposes Gbagbo. The UN has condemned Gbagbo, and imposed more and more sanctions. Gbagbo has not been impressed, and no one wants to go in and try to disarm Gbagbo's trigger-happy supporters. If full scale civil war resumes, the deaths could be much higher (the tens of thousands.)

A former French colony and the world's top cocoa producer, Ivory Coast was once regarded as a haven of peace and stability, until a 1999 coup that toppled president Henri Konan Bedie. Long considered a peaceful country, that welcomed millions of immigrant workers to sustain a booming economy after its independence from France in 1960, up to 40 percent of the 16 million population is now foreign. The immigrants inflamed political, religious and ethnic frictions between the largely Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south and west. 

Until his death in 1993, these disputes were kept under control by the country's post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. But like Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the ancient ethnic and religious animosities were still there, and were exploited by rival politicians after Houphouet-Boigny was gone. Elections were held and Laurent Gbagbo, a southern nationalist, won. He tried to improve his control of the country by forcing northerners out of the security forces, and have millions of them declared foreigners, and ineligible to vote.

This led to the first round of fighting in 2002. The French sent in troops, to at least prevent escalation, and with UN help, a ceasefire was achieved in 2003. But in late 2004, the ceasefire was broken with government air raids on rebel bases in the north. There were several dozen casualties, and a rebel controlled TV station was damaged. A resumption of the ground war was prevented by 6,000 UN peacekeepers, and 4,000 French troops, patrolling the 400 kilometer long border between government controlled southern Ivory Coast, and the rebel controlled north. The UN stopped all humanitarian work in the country for a while. Southern troops were prevented from going north by peacekeepers, but northerner supporters in the south were attacked. The southerners also hired some Su-25 ground attack aircraft (along with pilots and maintenance personnel) from Belarus, and these were used to attack French troops, killing nine of them. The French retaliated, wiping out the southerner's air force, and creating a rift between the nationalist southerners and France.

France and the UN slowly persuaded Gbagbo and his opponents to stop shooting and agree to an election to decide who is in charge. That didn't turn out too well.


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