Fighting in Ivory Coast could drag country into civil war

Civilians in Ivory Coast flee the fighting between Ouattara and Gbagbo. Credit: UNHCR H. Caux
Civilians in Ivory Coast flee the fighting between Ouattara and Gbagbo. Credit: UNHCR H. Caux


Reports from Ivory Coast indicate that the embattled West African nation is on the brink of civil war, with outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo recruiting thousands of young people to fight on his behalf against domestic and international backers of his rival, president-elect Alassane Ouattara.

The United Nations said on March 24 that the violence had already claimed 462 lives – 52 of them during the past week alone – and forced 500,000 people from their homes.

Church sources in Ivory Coast, who were not identified for security reasons, told Fides news agency that the country's administrative and economic capital Abidjan was engulfed in violence. They said the country was “sliding into civil war,” and that attempts at mediation were running into difficulty.

“The religious leaders of Ivory Coast are trying to mediate,” said one source within the local church, “but it seems difficult to contact the two parties. Communication difficulties also hamper the process of finding a common position among the religious representatives.”

While attempting to serve as peacemakers, religious groups have also feared for their own safety. A Franciscan convent sustained structural damage from heavy artillery on March 21, while supporters of Laurent Gbagbo have reportedly burned a number of Muslim mosques.

Gbagbo, a Catholic, has refused to give up the country's presidency despite losing to the Muslim candidate Ouattara in Ivory Coast's November 2010 election. The Catholic Church in Ivory Coast has insisted that the country's conflict is not religious in nature and should not lead to sectarian violence.

A religious sister of the Congregation of the Holy Family, Sister Rosaria, offered Fides a vivid description of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Abidjan. 

“Rounds are fired suddenly, when you least expect it,” she said. “The exodus of the population continues. There are people dying of starvation because food and medical supplies are scarce. Add to that the effects of heat on the physically debilitated.”

Sister Rosaria lamented the effects of an economic embargo designed to force Gbagbo to step down from power, saying it was “impossible to watch people dying simply because they have no medicine.”

“The pharmacies are closed and the embargo that was imposed aggravates the situation. The people are tired of not having anything.”

“It is the poor who are paying the price for everyone,” she said. “The smallest pay in the struggle for power.”

“I saw an eight year old girl taken to the dispensary with her brains hanging out of her head. How can we stop this massacre?”

Rinaldo Depagne, a Senior Analyst for West Africa at the International Crisis Group, told Vatican Radio that the situation in Adibjan was “deteriorating very quickly.” He said large numbers of young people loyal to Gbagbo were being persuaded to leave behind their jobs and join his army.

“You've got groups fighting for Gbagbo, groups fighting for Ouattara – and apparently, groups that don't obey any regular chain of commands or orders,” said Depagne. “Many civilians' lives are at stake.”

“It's very difficult to say it's a civil war or not. But we are on the brink of something very, very nasty in Ivory Coast, if nothing is done – especially to stop Mr. Gbagbo acting like he is acting.”

Depagne wants the European Union to join forces with the Economic Community of West African States, to intervene and protect Ivorian civilians. Although large portions of the country have not seen violence, no resolution appears forthcoming in the conflict over the presidency.

So far, international attempts at both mediation and intervention have failed. Gbagbo's “Young Patriots” consider themselves to be fighting a defensive war against U.N. peacekeeping forces who back Ouattara as the election winner – and against the president-elect's own native supporters, known as the “Republican Forces.”

While the economic sanctions against Laurent Gbagbo have caused serious problems for ordinary citizens, Depagne said the measures also had “a very strong effect” on Gbagbo himself.

“In March, he only paid 70 percent of the civil servants and soldiers,” said Depagne. “He's not in a very comfortable situation. The fact that he asked young people to join the army is a clear clue that he has no more money to pay for a regular army, and has to fill the gap with inexperienced young people.”

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