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What’s Next for Ivory Coast’s Gbagbo, Government, People?

April 5, 2011 at 6:51 PM EST
Diplomats worked to end the bloody conflict gripping the West African nation of Ivory Coast after months of political unrest. Ray Suarez discusses the situation with the National Endowment for Democracy's Dominique Dieudonne, who was in Ivory Coast for the elections, and Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation, we turn to Dominique Dieudonne, the West Africa program officer for the National Endowment for Democracy. She was in Ivory Coast for the elections. And J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Dominique Dieudonne, after the November elections, Laurent Gbagbo dug in his heels, said he wasn’t leaving. What has been the trigger, the turning point? What changed in the last several days to open at least the possibility of a negotiated settlement?

DOMINIQUE DIEUDONNE, National Endowment for Democracy: I think he was probably under the impression that he was going to be able to do what he wanted, which was to stay in power.

And so I think the events of the last couple of days, with the French coming on, helping the U.N. and having a sort of a strong military presence that said that we’re going to do this differently because the political and diplomatic negotiations have not worked. And so I think that’s probably what changed a corner for Laurent Gbagbo.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Pham, what is the turning point for you?

J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council: Definitely the military action.

The forces that supported Ouattara, the formal rebels, the Republican forces, as they’re known now, launched a lightning attack last week, which in four days, overran 80 percent of Cote d’Ivoire. And that changed the balance of power, left Gbagbo holding only pockets of the commercial capital of Abidjan.

And with his major military assets destroyed by the French forces working with the U.N. in the last 24 hours, he really has nothing left to defend himself with but light arms and the few followers he still has.

RAY SUAREZ: So in the end, both military and diplomatic pressure was necessary, you think?

J. PETER PHAM: I think both, because there was the diplomatic pressure, which was slowly starving out the resources that he was using for his — his war machine.

But it wasn’t happening fast enough, and the people of Cote d’Ivoire were suffering in the meantime. Something needed to be done to change the balance. And, in the end, it was a military action that gave force to and drove things to a crisis point.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the popular opinion change during this time as well? Was Gbagbo losing popular support, not among the army, not among people with money but among the masses of the country?

DOMINIQUE DIEUDONNE: I think it was — they were still divided.

I think his supporters, there’s very little that’s going to change their minds. They truly, really think in Gbagbo’s rhetoric that he won the election. They don’t look at practically how it was impossible for Laurent Gbagbo to claim that he won the election. And so, up until now, I think he is still going to have supporters who truly believe that he won the elections.

And then now he’s sort of adding the rhetoric of divine intervention. His wife is very strong in saying that this is God who wants him to have power, and he’s had it. And so there’s a certain number of people that you’re not going to be able to convince otherwise.

And so, for those who were on the fence, they never wanted the country to get to the point that it is now, because as Peter pointed out, it’s been a few days. People are running out of supplies. And so you have got fires here and there. And the bombardment has been nonstop for about two days.

And so those who are on the fence certainly never wanted to see the country get to that point, after 10 years of crises. And those I think are probably going to understand that you need to turn around a corner and politically will change their minds. But for Gbagbo supporters, I don’t think you’re going to have a change of minds.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Pham, what role did the United Nations and France play in pushing the country to this endgame?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, I think the United Nations played a very skillful game in this process. It left the Africans to take the lead, while at the same time, providing key resources that enabled Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the election, to continue getting his message across, to continue a presence in Abidjan, and then in the recent last 48 hours or so, ratcheting up its presence, calling in the French to help protect civilians and to eliminate the possibility that what was a standoff could turn into a humanitarian emergency.

So, it’s been effective action. The key now, though, is to move beyond — to look beyond the drama of whether Gbagbo has surrendered or not, and look at how we rebuild this nation, which was once the pearl of West Africa and the things that will be needed to be done to bring together this very divided house, as Dominique has stated.

And that’s going to take a lot of leadership and international support.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dominique Dieudonne, let’s talk about the region. Now, this has been a part of Africa with terrible problems, in Liberia, Sierra Leone nearby, in other countries in West Africa.

What does the — what risk remains that the problems of Cote d’Ivoire could spread to other countries?

DOMINIQUE DIEUDONNE: Sure. I think the risks are some that we have known, that elections don’t necessarily bring stability to a country.

And so, I think the jury is still out with how we have got over a dozen elections or so that are expected on the continent within a year. And so the jury is still out as to how they are going to interpret the results of what has happened to Cote d’Ivoire within their own contexts.

But I think Peter does bring up a good point, that the Africans sort of did this for themselves very early on. You had ECOWAS that came on really strong with the supporting of the presidency of Nigeria that was chairing ECOWAS at the time. And…

RAY SUAREZ: And ECOWAS, remind people what that is.

DOMINIQUE DIEUDONNE: Oh, sure. It’s the Economic Community of West African States.

And so they came on really strong to support the results of the elections. And so the E.U. certainly followed and the U.N. And I think that was a strong signal very early on that the rule of law is something that — that matters. And it matters for obvious reasons.

And so, I think we will have to see. It will probably have some positive effects, but we will have to see exactly what it means. It’s hard to tell right now what the repercussions are going to be for the region immediately and the rest of the continent.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even now, Gbagbo is telling French television that he’s still the rightful winner of last November’s elections, even as he possibly negotiates his release, Peter Pham.

If this is indeed the beginning of the end, does the man who was affirmed by the U.N. as the winner, Alassane Ouattara, walk into a situation that’s much worse, much degraded than if he had taken office in November?

J. PETER PHAM: It would have been difficult even if he had taken office in November. This was an historic moment for Cote d’Ivoire, the end of nearly a decade of civil war and division. And so it needed someone to bring everyone together.

Now, because Gbagbo denied losing, dragged this crisis, it forced the winner to take — make some choices that perhaps he would not have taken, relying on military forces from one side of the civil war to help bring about the endgame. That’s going to be yet one more thing he’s going to have to overcome. Tis reliance upon those forces even now to install him and his prime minister, Guillaume Soro, who led the — those forces within the civil war, the atrocities which they have been accused of, and credibly by human rights groups and church groups in the last week.

So, there are all number of things. It would have been difficult in November. It’s now even more difficult. And there are now more armed people that need to be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated. Otherwise, the country doesn’t have a fighting chance.

RAY SUAREZ: J. Peter Pham, Dominique Dieudonne, thank you both.

DOMINIQUE DIEUDONNE: Thank you for having us.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.