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The brewing civil war no one is talking about

Rebecca Blackwell / AP

A fighter opposed to Laurent Gbagbo displays the amulets he wears to protect himself from enemy fire, in the Abobo district of Abidjan on March 12. The "Invisible Commandos," allied to internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara have been steadily gaining ground in Abidjan's northern suburbs.

Dangerous paramilitary forces are thwarted by amulet-wearing self-proclaimed “Invisible Commandos,” innocent women are gunned down in broad daylight by forces loyal to a despot who won’t give up power. Quick, which conflict is it?

While the world has been focused on airstrikes and dramatic developments on the ground in Libya, a string of Middle East uprisings and twin natural disasters and the fear of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, another serious crisis has been quietly brewing: a potential civil war in the Ivory Coast.  

The West African country, a former model of stability in the region and the world’s largest cocoa producer, has been in limbo since a November election intended to reunite the country ended in a stalemate. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to cede power to the internationally recognized winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara. 

The dispute between the two leaders has led to armed conflict, with attacks on civilians, including reports of forced disappearances, rapes and torture; the U.N. estimates at least 462 civilians have been killed. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 500,000 have been internally displaced by violence. And an estimated 90,000 refugees have fled across the border to Liberia, threatening to destabilize a country still recovering from its own civil war. 
 
“Côte d’Ivoire (French for Ivory Coast) is no longer on the brink of civil war; it has already begun,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group wrote in an open letter to the Economic Community of West African States on Tuesday.   

The letter urged West African leaders and the international community to take “enhanced efforts to stop the country’s slide into full-scale civil war, which would likely involve ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes ... The future Gbagbo proposes for his country is war, anarchy and violence, with ethnic, religious and xenophobic dimensions.”  

Uneasy peace
Ivory Coast has been divided by civil war since 2002, but has had an uneasy peace since a 2003 cease-fire. The country was cut along north-south lines with Northerners being predominantly Muslim, many with roots in neighboring countries like Mali and Burkina Faso whose ancestors had come to the country in better times to work in cocoa and coffee plantations. The Southerners, mostly Christians, came to resent the so-called “foreigners” when the economy took a turn for the worse in the 1990s. A campaign of xenophobia based around the notion of “Ivoirité,” determining who was considered truly Ivorian based on their ethnic heritage, took hold and was at the root of the civil war.

SIA KAMBOU / AFP - Getty Images

Charles Ble Goude, center, Ivory Coast's Minister of Youth and leader of the "Young Patriots" speaks as commander in chief of the army Phillipe Mangou, right, looks on in front of thousands of young supporters of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo on March 21 in Abidjan.

Those ethnic issues were never really resolved. Ouattara, a former prime minister, World Bank official, leader of the opposition and the internationally recognized president-elect represents the aspirations of many Muslim Northerners. As a result, not only his supporters, but anyone suspected of supporting him based on their last name or ethnic heritage, is being targeted in the current wave of violence.

The U.N. currently has 9,600 peacekeeping troops in Ivory Coast – they have been there since 2004 to maintain the cease-fire agreement. One of the peacekeepers' main roles since the disputed November election has been to guard Ouattara, who is holed up at an Abidjan hotel.  

Spike in violence
But in recent weeks there has been a dramatic uptick in violence. Perhaps the most public and horrific attack came on March 3. Thousands of women gathered to march in protest against Gbagbo’s refusal to give up power when tanks showed up and soldiers opened fire – killing six. The attack created international outrage and condemnation by the U.S. and U.N.; Outtara called it a “new level of horror and barbarism.”

On March 17 a mortar attack on a market in a pro-Ouattara Abidjan neighborhood killed 30 civilians and injured 40 to 60 others, according to the UN.

But much of the violence and intimidation has not been so public and has been committed by shadowy pro-Gbagbo militia groups, as well as in retaliatory attacks by Ouattara backers.

Human Rights Watch recently issued a lengthy report documenting murders, disappearances, rapes, and torture committed by Gbagbo’s security forces and militias under his control against “real and perceived supporters of Allasane Ouattara.” The report cites tales from residents of Abidjan “of daily attacks by pro-Gbagbo security forces and armed militias, who beat foreign residents to death with bricks, clubs, and sticks, or doused them with gas and burned them alive.”

Gbagbo has used his power as the president to incite violence via state radio, TV and his “youth minister” Charles Blé Goudé called on “real” Ivorians on Feb.25 to barricade their neighborhoods and chase out foreigners. According to Human Rights Watch, more attacks on civilians ensued after Goudé made his plea.

In retaliation for the attacks, “Invisible Commandos,” forces allegedly loyal to Ouattara, have begun engaging in street-fighting in Abidjan to assert control over some terrorized neighborhoods, like Abobo.

SIA KAMBOU / AFP - Getty Images

Huge crowds of people wait to board buses at the Adjame bus station in Abidjan on March 22 to flee deadly violence as the country's post-election crisis deepens.

The commandos wear magic amulets they believe protect them from danger. Ouattara’s camp denies any connection to the commandos and says they are just regular citizens who are fed up with the brutality of Gbagbo’s forces.  

Humanitarian disaster
Meantime all the fighting in Abidjan has forced up to 300,000 people to flee the city, according to UNHCR.  International economic sanctions are having a tremendous effect on civilians – leaving banks closed, people unemployed, spikes in food costs and shortages of basic medicines. 

“What we thought at the beginning was going to be a short political stalemate is now developing into a large scale humanitarian crisis in Cote d’Ivoire with far-reaching consequences on basic services like healthcare and education,” Louis Vigneault-Dubois, the head of communication for UNICEF, said by phone from Abidjan recently. “The situation is already very bad, if it’s to get any worse, the consequences are going to be outrageously disastrous for the people.”

The crisis is also spilling into neighboring Liberia. "It's a serious threat to the stability of Liberia, and I might say to the stability of all neighboring countries,” Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters earlier this week.

U.S. stance?
So what is the U.S. stance on the conflict? Ivory Coast is a former French colony, so it’s not exactly in the United States sphere of interest. But if the U.S. is engaged in Libya because of an abusive leader who is killing his own people, what about Ivory Coast?

“We are definitely engaged. The United States has recognized Ouattara as the president. Formally we have accepted his ambassador’s credential here,” said a spokesman for the State Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “(Gbagbo)  seems intent on holding on to power, destroying his country and killing his people in order to hold onto power.

“We try to put the pressure on where we can – working through the partners in Africa and around the world.”

The spokesman said the U.S. believes that economic sanctions against Gbagbo will eventually take their toll on his ability to maintain power – particularly when he can no longer pay his soldiers and supporters.

In the meantime, the spokesman said, Deputy Assistant for the State Department on African Affairs Bill Fitzgerald is attending a summit of West African states in Abuja, Nigeria, focused on the deteriorating situation in the Ivory Coast and that a “strong statement” was expected at the conclusion of the meeting.