Before the UN vote, some African leaders met in Abuja, Nigeria, and called for the immediate imposition of the sanctions. President Obasanjo was surrounded by a tiny but very French-friendly group that many would have dismissed as irrelevant if it weren’t meeting for the purpose of giving to France, one of the members of the powerful Security Council Africa’s “blessing” to impose sanction on Gbagbo. To be more Francophile than Eyadema of Togo, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, African union President Omar Konare or Omar Bongo of Gabon, one would have to be Mayor of Paris. Therefore the outcome of their short meeting in Abuja was not a surprise. This is the same group of leaders who fought nail and tooth to maintain Charles Taylor in power and when they couldn’t, negotiate a luxurious retreat for him. Predicting the outcome of such talks, President Laurent Gbagbo abstained but dispatched the number two-man in his government, Mr. Mamadou Koulibaly, a Muslim and a northerner and a member of his party, as if to disquiet claims that the conflict was a tribal and religious one.
Sanctions have rarely worked in modern times. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of Charles Taylor was under arms embargo from 1992 but never failed to secure deadly weapons. The embargo imposed on Liberian warring factions in the mid-1990s never stopped them from acquiring the most sophisticated killing machines. By the time he was ousted in 2003, Taylor even had helicopter gun ships. If sanctions did not curb the traffic of arms in Liberia and Sierra Leone, they certainly will not put a dent in the flow of arms into Cote d’Ivoire. As soon as sanctions are imposed, arms merchants throughout the world get to work. It is common knowledge that countries that sell arms also use underground channels to keep their clientele happy, under any circumstances. Ivorians would simply have to sell more cocoa to buy the next set of jet bombers…
Beyond the cosmetic nature of these sanctions that France needed to cover-up her calculated “overreaction” to events in Cote d’Ivoire, the current breakdown in the process could lead to new opportunities for peace. It has allowed players to foresee the possible dangers ahead. France has lost her credibility on both sides of the curtain, Gbagbo is now weakened internationally for having broken an internationally brokered cease-fire and the rebels owe their survival to France who brought them from their various hiding places.
France’s involvement in the conflict has greatly reduced the potential for bloodshed in September 2002, when it created a buffer zone between rebels and the national army. French troops can be credited with imposing a cease-fire, providing security to political leaders whose death could have triggered a Rwanda-like scenario. Finally, by bringing the belligerents to Marcoussis for peace talks that led to the signing of a comprehensive agreement – maybe a bit too comprehensive – the Chirac government chartered the course for peace.
Negotiators in Marcoussis tried to address too many thorny issues that have been dormant in Cote d’Ivoire. They tried to find solutions to concerns about citizenship, land rights and illegibility for political leadership in the country. By going beyond the simple matter that was at hand at the time – the attempted military takeover by a group of soldiers from the garrison in Bouaké not to be confused with a popular uprising or rebellion - the roundtable of Marcoussis created a political pot-pouris where every grievance in Ivorian history found a spot. In addition to an amnesty for rebels, the formation of a national government of reconciliation and the disarmament of the various militias, Marcoussis also put constitutional amendments and other issues that could only be resolved once peace has returned through a national dialogue.
Only two items from the vast Marcoussis agenda could realistically be implemented: 1. The formation of a government of national reconciliation that rebels and other political parties joined; and 2. The disarmament of non-state combatants from Burkina Faso, Liberia and Sierra Leone who had been recruited by both sides. Political reforms could only take place after the country has been reunited and there was a peaceful atmosphere to conduct a referendum on certain issues.
Now that he has received the backing of the African Union and the United Nations, Chirac must now take a back seat and allow Ivorians to re-negotiate the Marcoussis Accord from an operational perspective with the help of a neutral arbiter, Thabo Mbeki.
The rebels may no longer have the blind trust they had in Chirac because they now know that he had given the green light to Gbagbo to “take them out”, according to La Lettre du Continent, a French publication citing sources close to the Elysées Palace. Gbagbo now knows or believes that Chirac had set him up in order to “take him out” once he had gotten rid of the rebels. This may explain why Chirac was so desperate in obtaining a UN support, on that fateful Saturday. Besides destroying Ivorian air power, French troops are said to have caused the death of at least 50 people according to Ivorian government sources and the Red Cross reported at least 600 wounded, many by bullets.
Peace in Cote d’Ivoire would be impossible without the leader of Burkina Faso being made to face up to its role in the conflict. Blaise Compaore has done his share of destabilization in West Africa. There were no Burkina interests in Liberia and Sierra Leone when he helped Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh to almost annihilate their own countries with his support. He would not solve problems faced by Burkina citizens in Cote d’Ivoire by setting that country ablaze. The current situation hurts Burkina Faso as much as it hurts Cote d’Ivoire. For more than fifty years, Burkina Faso has relied on Cote d’Ivoire for almost all its imports and for exporting its manual labor that sent home millions in hard currency much needed in this semi-arid country.
Constitution amendments suggested by Marcoussis Accord cannot realistically be carried out under the present conditions. The late Houphouet-Boigny manipulated the constitution at will and rewrote articles dealing with his succession every time he had a fall-out with his designated successor. He amended the constitution as if it were his personal will. Those practices can hardly be justified now. To make Gbagbo act like Houphouet by having him force the national assembly to make amendments would not resolve the problems of land tenure and eligibility to the presidency for long. This could only set a dangerous precedent.
Africa is already on a dangerous slope because every time a group takes up arms and kills hundreds of people, burns villages, rapes women and conscripts children into armies, it is given a share in the government in the name of reconciliation. This is a serious impediment to democracy, a system built on dialogue, peaceful disagreement and respect for the rights of all.
For the sanctions to be credible they would have to also be extended to those countries that have armed and provided sanctuary to the rebels, namely Burkina Faso and to certain extent France. Could France ensure that arms it sells to Burkina Faso and Mali would not end up in the hands of the rebels? Borders with Liberia would have to be closely monitored and the various seaports of Cote d’Ivoire put under tight control. France must refrain from bringing any arms not needed for peace keeping.
In conclusion, there is now a rare opportunity to move forward. Rebels can return to the government and a more neutral force must guarantee their security. In exchange for seats in the government and the amnesty already voted in their favor, they must stop holding on to the northern half of the country and disarm the child soldiers and mercenaries who have been terrorizing civilians. The government must put in motion a calendar of events leading to national debate and a referendum on issues that need to be reviewed and disband all its militias. All of this could take place by October 2005, if all parties, including Gbagbo, Chirac, Blaise, the rebels and their mentors commit themselves to finding a lasting solution. Compared to Liberia, cote d’Ivoire is still in good shape and can be salvaged. But for that to happen, France must accept that the Cote d’Ivoire of Laurent Gbagbo is not the Cote d’Ivoire of Houphouet-Boigny. Times have changed.
Sanctions will not bring peace to Cote d’Ivoire; they might just turn out to be another layer in an already tense and confused situation.