The conflict in the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) appears to be reaching its zenith this week, as supporters of president-elect Alassane Ouattara are moving on Abidjan, the center of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo’s support. The current fighting is the recent developing in a longstanding conflict in the Ivory Coast, which divides the country, in part, along sectarian lines between northern Muslims and southern Christians.
The decline of the Ivory Coast marks the tragic end of what was once a promising African success story. After independence, the Ivory Coast was able to martial its cocoa exports—accounting for approximately 40 percent of the world’s total production—into dramatic economic development in the 1960s and 70s. However, beginning in the 1980s, the Ivory Coast’s economy entered a sharp decline, prompted in part by sharp declines in markets for its major export commodities—coffee and cocoa. A military coup in 1999 was followed by an outbreak of civil war in 2002. French peacekeeping forces, authorized to operate on behalf of the United Nations and referred to as UNOCI, or the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire, entered the country in 2003 in order to keep parties separated and to help oversee national elections. Those elections, which had been postponed by the Gbagbo government several times, were finally held in October, 2010. The results were sharply disputed, as the government of the Ivory Coast declaring Gbagbo the winner while international elections monitors declared Ouattara the winner. The standoff soon devolved into direct military conflict, sparking widespread concerns about a humanitarian disaster and raising the specter of genocide. (The BBC offers a good overview of the history of the conflict).
On Monday, French forces participating in the UN mission launched a series of attacks intended to destabilize Gbagbo’s regime. This move marks a dramatic shift in the role of the international community in the Ivory Coast as well as a dramatic departure from the traditional role of United Nations peacekeeping forces more generally. The first point is relatively straightforward. While the international community has been actively involved in promoting regime change in some countries (read: Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan), it has maintained a wait-and-see approach in others (read: Egypt, Bahrain, and Ivory Coast). The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and John Oliver combined to offer an incredibly insightful analysis of the differences last week.
But more broadly, the decision of French peacekeeping forces to directly engage Gbagbo’s military marks a dramatic shift in the nature of UN intervention more generally. Historically, UN peacekeeping forces were precisely that—forces intended to monitor a peace already established by combatants. After the fiasco of United Nations Operation in Somalia II in 1993, when the United States intervened to support aid distribution in Mogadishu only to be rebuffed by militias loyal to Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Since that time, the United States has resisted efforts by the United Nations to cross the fuzzy line that separates peacekeeping and peacemaking. Does the Ivory Coast mark a change in that position? Probably not. It’s a risky strategy, as Peter Gowan, blogging at the Global Dashboard notes. But it is worthwhile noting that the French policy appears to have been at least partially successful. Since those engagements, several high-ranking officials previously loyal to Gbagbo have stepped down, and Gbagbo himself seems to be willing to negotiate a cease-fire.