The internationally recognized president of Cote d'Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, said Friday that he believes the end of January will be "an important benchmark" in the struggle to get incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to give up power.
Ouattara spoke during a teleconference on Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He has been holed up at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, protected by United Nations peacekeepers, since shortly after the November 28 presidential run-off against Gbagbo. There had been high hopes for a peaceful transfer of power that would help heal the wounds from a conflict that split the country in half in 2002.
"We believe the end of the month is an important benchmark because salaries usually, especially to the military, start being paid around the 20th of the month," said Ouattara. The country's security forces, who have been backing Gbagbo, have targeted Ouattara supporters, as well as stepping up attacks on UN peacekeepers. "The crux of the matter is for Gbagbo not to have money to pay the military and mercenaries and the militia," Ouattara said. "We think that's the most effective way to get them to abandon power."
Financial Power Struggle
However, Ouattara acknowledged that following through on financial pressures is a challenge. He has appointed a 13-member government but struggles to wield control while Gbagbo remains in the heavily fortified presidential palace. Ouattara said Gbagbo's security forces had intimidated public accountants and their families to force them to sign orders for the withdrawal of funds from domestic banks, as well as from the west African Central Bank, which manages exchange rate policies and holds accounts for eight nations in the region.
Ouattara said Gbagbo representatives are withdrawing large sums on a daily basis from local banks and from the regional central bank, despite a directive from the west African monetary union that only Ouattara's signature should be valid at the central bank. However, he expressed hope that within a week to 10 days his government would be able "to completely close the financial windows", particularly if international cocoa, coffee and petroleum companies, in addition to commercial banks, refuse Gbagbo's bid to debit Ivorian accounts.
Ouattara acknowledged that without his appointees being able to move around, his own policies are "very, very difficult to implement. We are in the Golf Hotel. It's easy to work via Internet and so forth, but when it's physical, it's difficult to protect people."
He said that the best way to prevent a violent conflict between Gbagbo forces and those of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which has threatened to remove him, is for Ecowas to show its resolve. "I think he will step down before force is used," he said. "I know him well."
At one point Gbagbo and Ouattara were political allies. In line with a process that all parties in the Ivorian elections approved, international observers monitored the polls under UN auspices. After the balloting, the United Nations validated the elections and certified them as free and fair. But Gbagbo, who has been in power since 2000, claims the November poll was flawed.
The international community recognizes Ouattara as Cote d'Ivoire's legitimate president and has imposed travel and other sanctions against Gbagbo and his supporters. Ouattara said he is not yet ready to call for general economic sanctions against Cote d'Ivoire, for fear of hurting the Ivorian people more than Gbagbo.
But panel member Akwe Amosu, director of African Advocacy for the Open Society Foundations, said comprehensive sanctions were among the tools that should be considered by the international community. She said the short-term pain might be less damaging than a protracted crisis that could have longer-term consequences for the entire region.
"People understandably don't want action taken economically to leave people suffering," she said. "But anyone who has watched wars in the Mano River area knows there is more to be lost than some economic ground. If you're looking at the prospect of a revived civil war [in Cote d'Ivoire], then you're going to want to take into consideration options which, in a normal day, you wouldn't."
"There should be a much tougher mindset around financial sanctions and economic sanctions - and isolation and monitoring of those various pieces to make sure it's going to work," she said. She noted that neighboring Liberia, which has been struggling to recover from a two-decade conflict since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president in 2005, could be plunged back into crisis from renewed Ivorian hostilities.
Humanitarian groups say 400 to 600 people a day have been fleeing across the border into Liberia and are predicting the flow to increase as more emergency food supplies reach remote areas. More than 22,000 Ivorian refugees are in Liberia already and many thousands more are internally displaced in Cote d'Ivoire.
All of the participants on the panel conveyed a sense of urgency about the post-election stalemate. Amosu noted reports of nighttime raids on homes of Ouattara supporters, of disappearances, of mass graves and other human rights violations. "I don't think anyone is any doubt, now, about the scale and the trajectory of this kind of violence," Amosu said.
She also noted the increasing attacks by Gbagbo supporters on UN peacekeeping forces, numbering 10,000 in Cote d'Ivoire, is a major concern. "You're seeing a level of impunity against an independent and neutral body that I think we should all be extraordinarily concerned about as this situation continues," she said.
Members of the panel noted that with 17 elections coming up in Africa this year, the outcome of the post-electoral crisis in Cote d'Ivoire has ramifications for the entire continent, not just the nation itself and the five countries that it borders.
Jennifer Cooke, director of the CSIS Africa Program, said the Cote d'Ivoire crisis had become a test of the resolve of the international community and its available mechanisms of leverage. "It has become a test of the rule of law and democratic principle, enforcement of peace agreements and conflict prevention interventions," she said.
"It poses an increasing risk to the stability of other fragile states in West Africa - and how this stand-off is resolved will have important ramifications throughout Africa and beyond," Cooke said. "At its core, this crisis is about the aspirations and future of the Ivorian people and who they have chosen to lead them through the many challenges of rebuilding and reconciliation that lie ahead."
Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute, recalled that four-to-five million Ivorians participated in a democratic, peaceful, well-conducted election, with the involvement of civil society. "If Cote d'Ivoire gets it right, if the issues get resolved in way that confirm that elections mean something," he said, "then we're going to see an increase in better elections across the African continent - elections in which the citizens will participate fully.
"On the other hand, if Cote d'Ivoire doesn't get resolved properly, then I think democrats across the African continent can...go home, because there's going to be no incentive for a sitting president to put in place a fair electoral process that will allow citizens to participate freely and let their voices to be heard, let alone to hand over power if they lose an election," Fomunyoh said.