In Ivory Coast, Fighters’ Advances Could Signal Changing Tide

BY Larisa Epatko  March 30, 2011 at 10:00 AM EST


Pro-Ouattara forces in western Ivory Coast (Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images)

In the four months since people in the West African nation of Ivory Coast decisively voted to turn out their president, his refusal to leave office has led to an increasingly violent standoff.

In a run-off presidential election in November, U.N.-certified results showed Alassane Ouattara winning 54 percent of the vote to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo’s 46 percent, but Gbagbo has since refused to leave office.

Forces opposed to Gbagbo control the northern half of the country but have been moving south, where Gbagbo is entrenched in the presidential palace in the economic capital, Abidjan. Ouattara’s government is holed up in a hotel in Abidjan.

Pro-Ouattara fighters most recently took the strategic towns of Duekoue and Daloa in the cocoa-producing west, but Gbagbo government spokesman Ahoua Don Mello said they would be able to go no further. “Their efforts to infiltrate other parts of Abidjan besides Abobo have been failures. Abidjan is impregnable,” he said, quoted Reuters.

Updated Wednesday 2 p.m. ET | Ouattara supporters seized the administrative capital of Yamoussoukro.

The United Nations says as many as 1 million people have left their homes to escape the violence. Ivory Coast, a country about the size of New Mexico, has a population of about 21.5 million, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The Western frontier could become the battleground for the two sides, which would have broader destabilizing effects on the region, according to Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Particularly in neighboring Liberia, unemployed young men, who have fought before in Ivory Coast, could be drawn back into the fighting, she said.

“I think the standoff in Abidjan, as that continues, you are going to see more and more unraveling of the security situation,” she said.

Christopher Fomunyoh, senior associate and regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute, said the recent advances are significant because they allow the rebels to get closer to San Pedro — the main seaport where the country exports cocoa. “It also generates panic in Abidjan because it sends the message that the Gbagbo forces are losing ground,” he said.

Gbagbo still has most of the armed forces behind him, along with a core group of militant supporters in Abidjan, said Fomunyoh. “But if momentum continues as it is, Gbagbo’s government’s days could be numbered,” he said.

We’ll have more on Ivory Coast this week on the NewsHour. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.