Skip to main content
Blog post

A Tale of Two Countries: Is Côte d’Ivoire on the Path to Recovery?

Cote d'Ivoire refugees 615w (att tlupic)

October 31st, 2013 will mark three years since the start of a bitterly contested presidential race in Côte d'Ivoire that pitted incumbent Laurent Gbagbo against opposition leader Alassane Ouattara and shook the country to its core.  The Commission électorale indépendante (CEI) certified the challenger with having received 54% of the vote to the incumbent's approximate 46%.  Upon learning of his defeat at the hands of Ouattara and the concurrence of a plurality of election observers, Gbagbo promptly dug in his heels and refused to cede power.  The chaos that ensued during the post-electoral period is well documented.  After a five month standoff and woeful human rights violations perpetrated by both sides, 3,000 people had been killed, 150 women had been raped, refugees numbering in the hundreds of thousands had fled to Liberia, and 1 million Ivoirians were displaced internally.   Formerly considered the jewel of West Africa owing to its robust performance in cocoa and coffee export commodities, Côte d'Ivoire was now a nation in tatters, stumbling out of almost a decade of social malaise and division, conflict, and civil war.

From Conflict to Recovery: Positive Steps Forward

That was three years ago.  Today, a little more than 2 years before the anticipated presidential elections of 2015, the country paints a picture of stark contrasts.  By all accounts, President Ouattara inherited an inordinately difficult situation.  Yet a balance sheet of his record thus far reveals some encouraging signs that the country is on the road to recovery.  For example, last year the country registered an impressive 9.8% economic growth, completed its obligations under the heavily indebted poor countries initiativeand, in response, the donor community opted to forgive large swaths of Côte d'Ivoire's foreign debt.  This gesture paved the way for the issuance of new loans to help the troubled country find its footing in a volatile and deeply divided post-Gbagbo era.

In March, Côte d'Ivoire ratified the Rome Statute becoming the 122nd member country of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Though it was certainly not a sanguine scenario for a government seeking to heal the wounds of a battered nation, the government began the exhumations of the roughly 40 mass graves in Abidjan's Yopougon district in April. All told, more than 400 bodies are thought to have been discovered.

In June, Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), announced that the organization, which left Abidjan for Tunis in 2002 due to the civil war, would now make preparations to return and "celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in November next year in Côte d'Ivoire."  Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations for the United Nations (UN), reported in July that the Government had made strides in addressing the security situation by engaging 65,000 former combatants in the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process.

Critically, in August, President Ouattara fulfilled a promise when the parliament voted to reform the laws governing citizenship and land ownership.  This particular reform, depending on scope and implementation, could potentially deal a decisive blow to those aforementioned issues that have undergirded the Ivoirian crisis since its onset.  Clearly, Ouattara's leadership, though imperfect, has produced some gains for the country.

Reconciliation and Accountable Governance Critical to Reconstruction

As one might suspect, however, this is only one side of the story. In terms of political reconciliation, Ouattara's record on uniting the country and bringing Gbagbo supporters and/or Front populaire ivoirien (FPI) party members into the political dialogue leaves much to be desired.  As President Ouattara looks ahead to 2015 with aspirations of a second term in office, he would do well to ramp up his efforts to reconcile Ivoirians from across the political, ethnic, and religious spectrum.  Admittedly, the remnants of the former regime have shown themselves to be, at times incorrigible, if not delusional, about the prospect of a blanket amnesty for those  who committed crimes during the crisis and their leader's return to Côte d'Ivoire.  Their successive boycotting of parliamentary elections is disappointing as they form a building block to Ivoirian democracy and a functional system of checks and balances.  Still, this is no excuse.  Ouattara campaigned on a platform of better governance, offering an alternative to political division and ethnic manipulation.  The failure to incorporate and meaningfully engage the FPI in the political process is tantamount to marginalizing half the electorate – after all, Gbagbo did garner nearly 1.7 million votes – and brings to mind the exclusion and invidious policy expressions of "Ivoirité."

The current government has also shown itself to be inept or unwilling to dispense justice equitably for the grave human rights violations that occurred during the post-electoral period.  This is a startling departure from President Ouattara's heartening assurances of accountability for the crimes committed by his followers, as well as for those of Gbagbo.  He stated at a UN press conference that "We want the rule of law.  Justice will be for everyone, with no distinctions."

But the facts do not bear this out.  Although the President has established 3 distinct committees – the Commission nationale d'enquête (CNE); the Commission dialogue, vérité et réconciliation (CDVR); and the Cellule spéciale d'enquête (CSE) – to delve into the atrocities of the 5-month power struggle, he merits sharp criticism for allowing his backers, guilty of human rights abuses in Abidjan and Duékoué, to avoid being called to account.  To date, 84 members of the Gbagbo camp have been detained and charged with crimes in reference to the crisis while no one from the President's side has been arrested or even charged. Of the 200 plus open investigations being conducted by the CNE, only 3 concern Ouattara supporters.  This flies in the face of the commission's final report, published in August 2012, that acknowledged the role that forces loyal to the President played in the melee and the human rights violations they committed.

On a visit to Korhogo, located in the country's northern region, President Ouattara called on the FPI to find the strength to ask for forgiveness from the victims of the crisis and prevailed on its members to "enter into the peace process."  He is absolutely right to make such an appeal.  Sustainable peace in Côte d'Ivoire requires all stakeholders, regardless of their political affiliation, to come together and lend their talents to the reconstruction of the country.  This is an incontrovertible sine qua non.  As yet, he has consistently failed to make a similar appeal to those in his ranks who committed crimes in his name.

When the president speaks of forgiveness, as though the havoc wrought during that dreadful episode was completely one-sided, he undercuts his commissions' reconciliation work and engenders mistrust.  Implicitly, he gives casual credence to the "justice des vainqueurs" claims of FPI hardliners who care more about returning to power than creating a country in which all Ivoirians can prosper.  Furthermore, the President risks feeding the same negative energy that catalyzed a civil war and eventually sent his predecessor to The Hague.  The fact that the CDVR has been handicapped by a lack of funding and support from the government appropriately questions the extent to which Ouattara aims at full-fledged reconciliation or lip service.  Additionally, the elevation of individuals (e.g. Losseni Fofana and Amédé Ouéremi) suspected of jarring human rights abuses within the state security apparatus, which of late has become predatory and vested in illicit trafficking, is callous and worrisome.

There is a middle ground wherein President Ouattara can reach out and engage FPI moderates, but so long as his rhetoric and actions remain incongruent, and justice falls solely in the lap of his political rivals, this will be increasingly difficult.  If that happens, then the recovery, reconciliation, and necessarily the future of Côte d'Ivoire are in peril.

Derek Langford is the Africa Program Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center and previously worked for the World Bank.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user tlupic.

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more