Analysis: Gbagbo departure won't heal Ivorian rift

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 05, 2011 9:03 AM
Analysis: Gbagbo departure won't heal Ivorian rift

By Tim Cocks

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Holding ex-President Laurent Gbagbo's war crimes trial in The Hague will prove safer for Ivory Coast than trying him at home, but will do little to solve the problems at the root of the country's civil conflicts.

Gbagbo sparked a four-month war that killed 3,000 people and displaced more than a million when he refused to cede a November 2010 election he lost to President Alassane Ouattara. He was moved to The Hague last week, making him the first ex-head of state to be tried by the court.

Trying Gbagbo at home could have sparked street violence or an attempt to free him, analysts said.

"Keeping Gbagbo in Ivory Coast in the long run would have created more tensions. They needed to get him out," said Samir Gadio, an analyst at Standard Bank. "He's a chapter of Ivory Coast's history that is now finished."

But the trial at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, which began on Monday, will fall far short of bridging the divisions over land and national identity that ultimately sparked both of the West African state's civil wars.

It could even deepen them if only Gbagbo and his camp are prosecuted.

Hundreds of people were kidnapped and killed in a crackdown by Gbagbo's forces following last year's contested election, sparking a war that only ended when Ouattara's French-backed rebel forces captured Gbagbo in April.

But Ouattara's forces were also behind some of the atrocities, including rapes and executions, as they swept toward the coast from their northern stronghold.


The fighting was sparked by the election, but was rooted in simmering tensions between the mercantile, Muslim people of the north and the agrarian, Christian south.

Many northern Ivorians come from families that immigrated from poorer and drier neighbors, like Burkina Faso, and they are seen by southerners as foreigners occupying some of the country's best agricultural land.

For many who voted for Gbagbo, his arch rival Ouattara suffers from an irredeemable flaw: he's foreign, they claim. Ouattara's father was from Burkina Faso and he was the deputy president of the IMF under Burkinabe nationality.

Years of peace talks since Ivory Coast's first civil war started in 2002, splitting the country in two, have done little to address the problem.

"The Ivorian crisis started even before Gbagbo came to power and it hasn't ended," said Giles Yabi, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Yabi said Ouattara would need to make reconciling his country a top priority, including reforming the military, currently dominated by northern former rebels.

A census in 1998 put the immigrant population at a quarter of the total -- one of the highest in the world.

"The question is not why Ivory Coast has been suffering an identity crisis ... but why it didn't happen much earlier," wrote Stephen W. Smith in the London Review of Books this year. "In a country ... which combines large-scale immigration and ill-defined citizenship, identity issues are deeply dangerous."


In the late 1980s a fall in commodity prices triggered a recession and deepened tensions between migrants and locals. Successive politicians, including Gbagbo, exploited these tensions, discriminating between Ivorians and "outsiders" by restricting the latter's rights.

The concept of "Ivoirite" or "Ivorianness" was used to exclude many northern Ivorians from voting.

Ouattara was denied the right to contest the presidency twice on grounds of being foreign. He won that battle in the end, but the divisions over identity remain.

"Underlying fissures over Ivoirite and land ownership will simmer beneath the surface, especially if northerners are seen to be receiving favorable treatment under a northern president," said Eurasia Group's Anne Fruhauf.

A proper system of land titling will go some way towards resolving the mess of land ownership, especially in the west, where people contest rights over rich cocoa-growing land.

But the feeling among many southerners that northerners are outsiders with no right to rule is likely to persist.

"Gbagbo represents quite a lot of people. Whoever eventually replaces him is going to keep this Ivoirite thing going. He's not the only southerner who thinks southerners should rule," said Richard Dowden of the Royan African Society.

Many southerners are still bitter about the wars, see Ouattara as a stooge of the French and a harbor a deep sense of injustice at Gbagbo's ouster -- heightened by the fact that only his side has been pursued for crimes, so far.

"It looks a lot similar to what happened in Congo. You had an election, and the loser got sent to the ICC, even though there were crimes on both sides. It seems a pretty bad way to bring about reconciliation," said Dowden, referring to Congo's 1998-2003 war.

"Gbagbo's supporters will not feel that this is just."

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Philippa Fletcher)