Daouda Diabaté was driving from his home in Potomac, Md., to the Embassy of Côte d’Ivoire the morning of April 11 when his cell phone rang with the news that he — and much of the world — had been waiting to hear for more than four months: Former President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to accept defeat in the country’s November 2010 runoff election, had finally been captured by forces loyal to the new president, Alassane Ouattara.
“I was so happy, you can’t imagine,” recalled Diabaté, “not only for myself, but for the Ivorian people who have been suffering unnecessarily for so long. I phoned back home to confirm that information, because at first I thought it was too good to be true.”
Gbagbo’s arrest ended a nightmarish standoff between the two rivals that, over a four-month period, killed an estimated 1,500 people, drove another 1 million from their homes, and threatened to plunge what was once West Africa’s most prosperous country back into full-scale civil war.
It also cleared up some ambiguities at Côte d’Ivoire’s new gray-brick Washington embassy, where for a while, Diabaté didn’t know who he could trust.
“When Gbagbo was captured, I tried to imagine what he must have been thinking, knowing that five weeks earlier, he still had the opportunity to leave the country on a red carpet,” Diabaté told The Washington Diplomat the day after Gbagbo’s arrest made world headlines. “All this is his responsibility. After the election results were announced, Gbagbo should have congratulated the winner and let him rule the country.”
In retrospect, perhaps, but Gbagbo clearly wasn’t in a congratulatory mood. Instead, he stubbornly clung to power despite Ouattara having been unequivocally declared the winner of an election years in the making — mostly because Gbagbo kept postponing it — by Côte d’Ivoire’s Electoral Commission, not to mention the United Nations, African Union, European Union, United States and most of the world.
Interestingly, the international community seemed to have little appetite this time around for another African strongman ignoring the will of his people, showing rare unanimity in throwing its weight behind Ouattara’s camp. The United States, European Union and other nations quickly slapped economic sanctions to bleed Gbagbo’s coffers dry and starve him of military support. The United Nations, despite its innate aversion to conflict, held firm, even boosting the number of peacekeepers in the country by 2,000 to nearly 12,000 troops who came under fire by Gbagbo loyalists. African heads of state flocked to Abidjan to negotiate a graceful exit for Gbagbo. Even the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened military action if Gbagbo refused to cede power, a bold move for an African bloc even if it was largely a bluff.
Gbagbo — nicknamed “Le Boulanger” for his ability to roll his adversaries in flour — was not phased. He rebuffed the worldwide pressure while unleashing a vicious crackdown on Ouattara’s supporters, trying to bide his time while Ouattara himself remained largely holed up in a hotel guarded by U.N. peacekeepers.
Frustrated with the stalemate, Ouattara’s rebel troops finally retaliated, successfully dislodging Gbagbo with the help of U.N. and French forces but in the process, becoming tainted by the same charges of war crimes leveled at their opponent.
As Ouattara finally assumes office and daily life resumes in the paralyzed port city of Abidjan, the country has pulled back from the brink of war, but the fight to unify Côte d’Ivoire is far from over.
That’s because the country has been plagued by deep-seated ethnic, religious and regional divisions for decades. To really understand the roots of these fault lines, one must go back to 1960, when the New Mexico-size country won independence from France. Under the one-party rule of its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the economy boomed and by 1980, the number of French citizens living there had doubled. In 1983, Houphouët-Boigny moved the country’s capital city to his hometown, Yamoussoukro, 150 kilometers north of the commercial capital of Abidjan.
But then Côte d’Ivoire’s crop-dependent economy — once dubbed the “Ivorian miracle” — took a turn for the worse, and amid rising tensions, Houphouët-Boigny was forced to accept a transition to multiparty democracy. But that transition has so far only further polarized the country, with each election mired in controversy and bitter recriminations that continually resurface every few years.
In fact, many of the same figures keep cropping up in Côte d’Ivoire’s sad decline over the last two decades. After the president’s death in 1993, Henri Konan Bédié won a power struggle with Ouattara, who had served as prime minister and had exercised the duties of president during Houphouët-Boigny’s final illness. In 2000, Gbagbo defeated Bédié in an election from which Ouattara was excluded because his parents had been born in neighboring Burkina Faso and was, therefore, not a “pure” Ivorian.
Not coincidentally, Ouattara is also a Muslim, drawing support from the north, while the south is largely aligned with Gbagbo, a Christian — underscoring the religious fissures that have been growing since Houphouët-Boigny’s death.
Those fissures cracked in 2002, when an unsuccessful armed uprising in the northern half of the country tried to oust Gbagbo after his contested election victory two years earlier that had also sparked widespread protests. (In what would later be seen as an irony, France intervened to bolster Gbagbo during the coup attempt.)
Although the insurrection failed, it quickly devolved into a civil war from 2002 to 2003, fracturing the country into the rebel-held north and government-controlled south. After a shaky ceasefire, French and African peacekeepers established a buffer zone and tried to get the various competing factions to form a power-sharing government and tackle festering issues such citizenship requirements, who can run for office, and land tenure laws that many experts say have fueled the cycle of violence and grievances.
By 2004, the reunification effort broke down and fighting flared again. Gbagbo ordered airstrikes against rebels in Bouaké, a northern stronghold. One of those strikes killed nine French soldiers, prompting France to destroy the African country’s air force. The 15,000 French citizens living in Côte d’Ivoire then became the target of nationalist mobs, and ever since, Gbagbo has eyed the French with suspicion, accusing them of orchestrating this latest conflict.
The perpetual instability also allowed Gbagbo to keep extending his presidential term, gaining a five-year mandate in the process and stalling elections that the international community had originally set for 2005.
Interestingly, Gbagbo and Ouattara, both former professors, weren’t always mortal enemies. After clashes erupted over the disputed 2000 election that had barred him from running, Ouattara called on his party to refrain from fighting and recognize Gbagbo. For his part, Gbagbo in 2007 allowed Ouattara to run in the upcoming presidential election.
The goodwill vanished though when Ouattara actually won that election, which was intended to heal the splintered country, not tear it apart.
“Our people had been suffering for more than 10 years because of civil disturbances and the instability that followed the 2000 elections and the attempted coup of 2002,” the ambassador told us. “Since this time, Côte d’Ivoire has never known peace. We’ve had a lack of justice, a lack of democracy, lack of free speech and lack of the rule of law. We lost our reputation for stability.”
The long-delayed election finally took place Oct. 31, 2010. In the first round, Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) won 38 percent of the vote, followed by Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans (RDR) with 32 percent and Bédié’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), with 25 percent.
With nobody winning a majority, a runoff was scheduled for Nov. 28 between the top two candidates. Bédié decided to throw his allegiance behind his former rival, Ouattara. As a result, the 69-year-old Ouattara easily carried the day with 54.1 percent, compared to 45.9 percent for Gbagbo. Perhaps taken by surprise, Gbagbo immediately had the Constitutional Council annul the results of various pro-Ouattara precincts and gave himself the victory despite international condemnation.
“The United Nations, recognized as the certifier of the election, certified that it was fair, democratic and transparent,” said Diabaté. “There was no doubt. The Carter Center also confirmed this. Even the governors appointed by Gbagbo certified that there was no fraud.”
The ambassador also noted that the runoff’s 84 percent turnout was “a clear indication” of how seriously the 21 million inhabitants of Côte d’Ivoire took this vote.
“We spent almost five years preparing for elections. The outcome of the election in Côte d’Ivoire was certified as one of the most well organized elections on African soil. The international community was looking at that election to be duplicated elsewhere as a model to show the way to 17 other African countries which are going to stage elections this year.”
But now Côte d’Ivoire has become a model of what the international community doesn’t want happening after an election (also see “Will the Year of African Elections Cement Democracy or Sow Discord?” in the April 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“This is a very sad and difficult period for our beloved country. At one time, before I was ambassador, we were looked at as a model of prosperity and stability in the best sense of the word. But today, unfortunately, I represent my country in a time of disaster. It has been very difficult for us as Ivorian diplomats to perform during this period of mass killing and lack of democracy.”
Difficult is an understatement. For months, the presidential standoff also led to a diplomatic tussle around the world, as nations recognized Ouattara’s ambassadors over Gbagbo’s in a show of solidarity that created some awkward situations, especially here in Washington, where a microcosm of the power struggle played out between two ambassadors, each loyal to a different president.
So for a short while, the city effectively had two ambassadors from the same country: Gbagbo’s man in Washington for the last three years, Ambassador Charles Koffi, and Diabaté, a veteran career diplomat who, in fact, was Koffi’s predecessor, having been appointed ambassador to Washington in 1994 by Bédié after serving as envoy in Ethiopia and Morocco.
“Let me be very clear,” said Diabaté, 63, who grew up in Bouaké and got his education at the University of Abidjan. “There are two kinds of ambassadors: one who has nothing to do with diplomacy, and career diplomats. I’ve been a professional diplomat for more than 35 years. When Gbagbo became president, I had already been ambassador for almost six years.
“If I had been a political appointee, as soon as the presidency changed, I would have resigned,” he said. “But there are a lot of things I don’t share, and they realized I was not with the [Gbagbo] government, so they removed me from here.”
In November 2007, Diabaté — who’s fluent in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese — was transferred to Brazil and was replaced by Koffi. Three years later, the tables would be turned.
Last December, when it became clear that Ouattara had won the elections and Gbagbo was refusing to relinquish power, a low-level State Department officer interrupted Koffi’s Miami vacation to tell him he had 30 days to leave the country. Like his boss though, he stayed on. In mid-January, Ouattara appointed Diabaté to the Washington post, and a month later the State Department accepted his credentials.
The stage seemed set for a confrontation, but Koffi — who has known Diabaté since the mid 1970s and has said he has nothing personal against him — quietly relented and returned to Côte d’Ivoire.
Still, it was a struggle for Diabaté just to get the keys to the embassy and its official vehicles — not to mention ridding the mission’s walls of all the framed portraits of Gbagbo.
“Of course, an embassy is the kind of place where you find everybody. Since Côte d’Ivoire aims to be a democratic country, we tolerate all kinds of opinions,” he diplomatically noted.
Diabaté said the president’s daughter, Marie Singleton, had long been the embassy’s vice consul, but that she stopped coming to work after he was sworn in as ambassador.
“You cannot know peoples’ opinions, but what I tell them is that the election is over, we have a new president, and that they should stand ready to work with the new administration. That’s how a democratic country is run.”
Diabaté, who said he knew Gbagbo through his position as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was first consul at the Ivorian Embassy in Liberia from 1979 to 1981 — which coincided with the assassination of Liberia’s president, William R. Tolbert.
“Our fear at the time was that the crisis would cross over to Côte d’Ivoire,” he recalled. “After that, we witnessed the crisis in Sierra Leone. Although it may happen to any country, I never imagined that Côte d’Ivoire would reach the bottom. I don’t recognize my country,” he lamented, pointing out that living standards have fallen at least 40 percent, with annual per-capita income now at only $1,200.
That’s why Diabaté sees his mission here as a fairly straightforward one: to get the world’s richest country to help what was once Africa’s most promising developing nation get back on its feet and move past the horror of human rights atrocities committed by both sides in this long-running conflict.
“Fortunately, the Ivorian people spoke their minds and made their choice through a transparent and democratic election. The United States, being the temple of democracy, should now help Côte d’Ivoire,” he said.
But the real work will fall to the country’s new president, whose priority is to unify a frayed nation, half of which backed the old president. John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and now a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the first thing Ouattara must do is reach out to the 46 percent of Ivorians who voted for Gbagbo in the runoff.
“There were substantial numbers of people who supported Gbagbo. That’s why he was able to defy the international community for so long. Those people need to be reconciled,” he said in a media conference call the day after Gbagbo’s capture. “Clearly, there has to be disarmament, particularly of all the irregulars on both sides. There also has to be a significant effort to reintegrate them into Ivorian life. The drama isn’t over yet.”
Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, says the government will also need to finally resolve the lingering issues that were put off after the 2002-03 civil war.
“A lot of the fundamental issues that caused the civil war still persist. Ouattara has a very tough road ahead of him. He made it tougher by the fact that the transition didn’t occur through peaceful means, but by military means. He’s also now heavily reliant on his prime minister, the former head of the rebels, without whose forces he would have never made it to power.
“Ouattara has spoken about the need for national unity. But his appointments of government officials to date have all been northerners, including the ambassador himself,” Pham added. “He’s got to reach out. He only won the second round of elections because the third-place finisher [Bédié] threw his southern votes to Ouattara.”
Jendayi Frazer, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs who’s now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Ouattara is already taking crucial steps to bring Côte d’Ivoire under control.
“He’s signaling his forces to put down their arms, as well as those who supported Gbagbo. He also needs to be very clear that the United Nations still has a role to play in Côte d’Ivoire. They need to help him secure the country during this transition phase and carry out their mandate, to protect the civilian population and help restore human rights. There’s a humanitarian crisis, with a million IDPs [internally displaced persons]. He’ll have to restore the economy and start bringing these people home.”
She added: “It’s widely recognized that the source of this crisis lay at the feet of Gbagbo. Ouattara’s biggest challenges will be more on the governance side than on the issue of atrocities, which he so far is handling quite well.”
Not everyone agrees. Washington resident Gnaka Lagoke, who worked for a pro-Gbagbo newspaper in Abidjan for eight years and now condemns Ouattara through postings on his website, insists that Gbagbo is the lesser of two evils, arguing that the election obscured the bigger issues of outside interference and internal division.
“When it comes to the relationship between France and Côte d’Ivoire, Gbagbo symbolizes the resistance against neocolonial interference,” Lagoke told The Diplomat, complaining that the mainstream media has covered the conflict unfairly. “In Africa, we have a serious problem. France is a neocolonial power, and does everything it can in order to break every leader it doesn’t control. Ouattara was the godfather of the rebellion that split the country.”
Diabaté dismisses such talk of French neocolonialism as outdated rhetoric. “They used to say it was the Americans who kept Gbagbo in power. My answer is that foreigners never voted in Côte d’Ivoire. It’s a new era in which no leader can kill his own people and the people will just stand on the sidelines.”
Campbell, the former U.S. envoy to Nigeria, agrees that Gbagbo has longed played that neocolonialism card to his advantage. Although he doesn’t see a vast conspiracy, Campbell says the United Nations and France clearly stepped in to contain a spiraling humanitarian disaster.
“One would hope that with Ouattara’s reaching out, and various steps presumably under way to end the fighting, that the French will need to keep troops there. The fact remains that the French were indeed involved. Whether or not they were directly involved in Gbagbo’s capture, everybody could see their helicopters circling overhead.”
But he added that “we were in the last days of a civil war taking place in a city of more than 3 million people, with every potential for a major bloodbath. Under those circumstances, I’m not prepared to second-guess what the U.N. did to bring about an end to the crisis.”
Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Diplomat that France isn’t exactly helped by its less than stellar reputation for meddling in Ivorian affairs.
“But this is a line being used to great political effect by Gbagbo, presenting Ouattara as a puppet of the French. I think they felt compelled to act. Civilians were being targeted by heavy weapons. Ultimately the French did the right thing — and they were careful to let Ouattara’s forces deliver the coup de grace.”
Now that he’s taken the reins, one of the biggest challenges for the new president — who earned both his master’s and doctorate degrees in economics from the University of Pennsylvania — will be putting the country’s shattered economy back on track. His background seems geared to do just that: From 1994 to 1999, Ouattara served as deputy managing director of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund.
“We are fortunate to have a president with the caliber of Mr. Ouattara, who is used to such challenges,” Diabaté said. “In his position of deputy managing director at the IMF, he used to work on post-conflict reconstruction in many countries. Now that the Ivorians are fed up, I think everybody has learned the lesson that we should focus on reconstruction.”
Already, the 27-member European Union has targeted 400 million euro in assistance for Côte d’Ivoire. “If the EU has done this, I think the United States can do at least that much,” the ambassador suggested.
Asked how much in dollar terms the recent fighting has cost his country, Diabaté cited “billions in direct and collateral damage,” though he couldn’t be more specific. “Companies were obliged to close down, and banks were ransacked. Cocoa and coffee could not be exported from the port. These industries suffered at least 70 percent in losses,” he said.
Oil and gas exports bring $3 billion in foreign exchange annually for Côte d’Ivoire, which puts hydrocarbons slightly ahead of the country’s second-place export, cocoa. Côte d’Ivoire controls 40 percent of the world’s cocoa crop and is among Africa’s top three coffee exporters.
“The international community, having backed Ouattara, now needs to come forward and help him. He’s got to normalize the situation as quickly as possible,” said Pham. “That means lifting the embargo on cocoa exports and getting the cocoa out very quickly. There’s a second crop due in two or three weeks, and it has no place to go if the previous crop hasn’t been moved.”
In addition to reviving the cocoa industry, another urgent priority is reconciling the country’s various warring factions. Downie warns that Ouattara is inheriting a volatile society and his immediate focus needs to be on restoring security. “In Abidjan, you’ve got a security vacuum right now. This security situation has plagued the country for a decade. Ouattara needs to forge a new national army, one that’s subordinate to civilian control, and to disarm paramilitary groups that have been running ragged around the country for some time.”
Downie noted that Ouattara doesn’t have particularly strong control of the forces that have been fighting for him — and that many of the soldiers who had supported Gbagbo switched sides only for pragmatic reasons.
“Ouattara needs serious security-sector reform,” added Pham. “You cannot attract investments with irregulars on both sides walking around heavily armed.”
Campbell agrees, noting that “once security is restored, the legitimate government will benefit from the fact that the international community is watching. What worries me is that too often, the international community has a very short attention span and simply moves onto the next crisis that dominates the news cycle. Were that to happen, the whole process would take much longer and might be compromised.”
One reason the world’s attention might be diverted from Côte d’Ivoire is the other African civil war making headlines: the one between Libyan strongman Col. Muammar Qaddafi and rebels trying to oust him. In fact, some observers say Gbagbo may have gambled that the international community would be too consumed by the uprisings in the Arab world to expend its energy on Côte d’Ivoire, even though the violence there eclipsed what’s happening in many Arab states.
“In absolute terms, the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire is worse than the humanitarian crisis in Libya,” according to Campbell. “The population of Côte d’Ivoire is significantly larger. Secondly, it is the U.N. that has been the principal outside organization involved. In Libya, it’s NATO. Thirdly, there is significant progress toward resolving the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, whereas in Libya, it goes on and on.”
Ultimately, Ouattara will also have to decide what to do with Gbagbo, who’s currently being held at an undisclosed location.
“He won’t be executed for his crimes. The president will take care of that issue, and the judiciary system will have all the necessary arrangements,” Diabaté said. “Of course, the president’s top priority now is reconciliation and reconstruction of the country. But in order to reconcile, we must know what happened. That’s why he wants to establish a truth and reconciliation commission. There has been so much impunity in Côte d’Ivoire. Anyone who has committed crimes will face justice.”
Frazer said any trial of the former president must be credible so that it doesn’t end up looking like a kangaroo court convicting him of crimes without sufficient evidence.
“I’m not a fan of another African case at the International Criminal Court, so I would rather see Mr. Gbagbo taken out of the country, held in some type of custody and then Ivorian courts being re-legitimized to hold a trial against him, or some type of regional African court to address this issue,” she said.
Downie suggested that if it were up to him, Gbagbo would be tried by the International Criminal Court. “He has serious charges to answer. But being pragmatic, Ouattara faces a common problem: Do you want peace or justice? Sometimes you can’t have both, and you have to decide which of the two is more important,” he said. “Given the fragmentation of Côte d’Ivoire, he must favor peace over justice. That might mean erring toward leniency.”
Pressed for his opinion on what should happen to Gbagbo, the ambassador was clearly unwilling to say much at this point.
“I am not a judge,” Diabaté told The Diplomat. “But in my mind, yes, he is guilty of many crimes. And for each kind of crime, there is an appropriate punishment.”
What happens to Gbagbo, who retains widespread support, is one of many thorny issues that can tip the balance in a fragile country where tensions still run high. Many of the 135,000 Ivorians who fled to neighboring Liberia remain there, too afraid to come home. As of press time, sporadic fighting continued throughout Côte d’Ivoire as troops loyal to Ouattara showed off a cache of 532 cases of missiles discovered in the basement of Gbagbo’s presidential palace — along with crates of mortars, grenades and ammunition littering the adjacent gardens — evidence that the bloodshed could have been far worse.
Diabaté says he has no immediate plans to travel to Côte d’Ivoire. Rather, he’ll use the next few months to lobby aggressively for U.S. assistance to his ravaged nation.
“With the new administration in power, all pending issues will be addressed to pave the way for stability, peace and progress,” he said. “I’ll spend my time meeting with American authorities, explaining to them now that the crisis is over, the time has come to rebuild our beautiful country. This year, we are going to have 17 elections in Africa. In my view, democratic elections are the only way for Africa to have rule of law and good governance. Otherwise, poverty will expand everywhere.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.