submitted, the Ivory Coast is set to swear in Alassane Ouattara as the country’s new president (CNN, 2011, 1), ending over six months of internal turmoil that threatened to lead the country into outright civil war, and challenged the international community’s ability and willingness to respond. Ouattara had been unable to take the presidency despite winning last November because losing incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power (Ibid). On April 11th, 2011, pro-Ouattara forces arrested Gbagbo after an assault on his residence in the capital Abidjan with the assistance of French forces (Harding, 2011).

The standoff was challenging for the international community. The issue was domestic in nature, but stability both in the country and the region has been difficult to achieve. The prospect of a prolonged civil war was real, and this would not only have destroyed the Ivory Coast but would also have had a debilitating effect on West African region in general. The standoff between Gbagbo and Ouattara therefore took on greater strategic importance for the international community than a domestic political conflict would have under normal circumstances. As the standoff unfolded, French troops eventually did become involved in helping bring Ouattara to power, and the UN is currently holding Gbagbo.

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This paper will outline the Ivory Coast crisis and the international response to it. A background section will highlight the political scene in Ivory Coast, including a discussion of the conflict between Gbagbo and Ouattara, a rivalry that predates this standoff. The election itself will receive significant coverage in the paper. The final main section will discuss the international community’s response, with specific reference to the responses of the UN and of France. Lastly, some conclusions will be drawn about the international response to the crisis.


Ivory Coast is a nation in West Africa and in the pre-colonial era was home to a number of kingdoms. These states were effectively coalesced into Ivory Coast by France during the period known as the ‘scramble for Africa’, when European colonial powers competed for territorial claims on the continent. The country’s formal name, Cote d’Ivoire derives from this time. France eventually laid claim to the bulk of West Africa, with Ivory Coast representing a stretch of coastline wedged in between the British colony that would become Ghana and the independent free state of Liberia. The coastline was the hub of activity for the French, and it did not fully extend its control into the interior until the 20th century. Politically, Ivory Coast was part of French West Africa, a colony that was a confederation of eight territories, each of which would eventually become an independent nation. Culturally, Ivory Coast consisted of a number of tribes, the largest today being the Akan at 42% of the population, with the other groups being the Gur (17%), Northern Mandes (16.5%), Krous (11%) and the Southern Mandes (10%) (CIA World Factbook, 2011). The French adopted a policy of assimilation that damaged the traditional structure of these tribes, in addition to dismantling the kingdoms that had existed prior to their arrival.

French colonial rule ended in 1960 when Ivory Coast was granted its independence. The country has never truly known democracy, but performed well relative to its peer group with respect to stability until a military coup in 1999. Since that point, Ivory Coast has struggled to maintain any political stability at all. The coup was followed by a rigged election, but the leader that emerged as result, Robert Guei, was overthrown in a popular revolt and replaced with Laurent Gbagbo. There was a failed coup in 2002 in response to Gbagbo’s rule and in 2003 rebel forces took over the northern half of the country (CIA World Factbook, 2011).

Ivory Coast is split roughly along north-south lines with respect to ethnicity and religion. According to the CIA World Factbook (2011), the country is 38.6% Muslim and 32.8% Christian, with the remainder of the population either professing indigenous religions or none at all. The north of the country is predominantly Muslim, the south mainly Christian. Ethnically, the north has a high proportion of people who are either immigrants from or the descendants of immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and other nations to the north of the Ivory Coast. Ouattara is the political representative of these groups, while Gbagbo largely represents southern, Christian groups. Ouattara was barred from entering the 2000 election on account of his Burkina Faso heritage, and a large portion of the north’s people were also barred from voting on similar grounds, all part of a broad set of ethnic policies known as ivoirite. These policies are responsible for a significant part of the schism between the north and south in general, and between Ouattara and Gbagbo specifically (Bassett, n.d.).

Bassett (n.d.) argues that the ivoirite policies are part of a strategy that reflects the politics of scale, in which political actors seek to build scale of electors to help win elections. By excluding a large number of northerners from voting, and Ouattara specifically from running, Gbagbo sought to solidify Christian southern power in the country. This led directly to the country’s civil war of 2002-2003. The main factions from the north and south were soon joined by two other groups from the west of the country, complicating peace and reconciliation efforts (Aloisi, 2003). It was only in 2007, after many diversions from the path towards peace that a resolution appeared to be on the horizon. Elections were scheduled for 2008.

The ivoirite policies that have driven the conflict have played a significant role in the conflict today. There is a sense of distrust among the northern Ivorians that the French, who have always remained closely linked to the nation’s political and economic life, have favored the south and Gbagbo. Wambu (2011) points out that the political overtones of ivoirite include a desire of the south to break free from France’s domination of the country, countering the claims of those in the north. The French are effectively accused of playing both sides of the conflict. Ivoirite policies are seen by some partly as a means of shaping an Ivory Coast for Ivorians, but clearly there is a difference between the different visions of what constitutes an Ivorian.

One of the most profitable businesses in the country is cocoa farming, and this economic success attracted foreigners to work in the country since just after independence. Anecdotal evidence tells of people immigrating to Ivory Coast in search of jobs and finding them during the post-colonial era. Nearly forty years later, such people became viewed as un-Ivorian during the wave of xenophobic fervor that transpired beginning with the 1999 coup. Even those born in the country were not considered Ivorians if their parents came from elsewhere. Such non-Ivorians have been in the country their whole lives, or for decades, but have been subject to propaganda campaigns against them from the central government and persecution from Ivorian groups and law enforcement (Itano, 2002). It is worth noting that one of these ‘foreigners’ is Alassane Ouattara, who was born in what is now Ivory Coast but to a father from Burkina Faso (The Economist, 2011). Ouattara, who comes from a line of kings whose kingdom did encompass a part of Ivory Coast as well as most of Burkina Faso (Ibid.), thus is a powerful symbol to the large section of “foreign” Ivorians and their plight, making him a natural rival to Gbagbo and the southerners.

The 2010 Election

In 1995, the electoral code was revised to stipulate that election candidates were disallowed if either of their parents was non-Ivorian or if they had not lived in the country the previous five years. This policy was viewed at the time as being specifically written to disallow Ouattara (d’Aspremont, 2011). Only in 2007 was it finally determined that Ouattara would be allowed to contest the next election, which would eventually be set for November 28, 2010, after having been postponed several times from its original date in 2005.

The election primarily pit Ouattara against Gbagbo with former President Henri Bedie as a third candidate. As expected. Ouattara’s power base was the Muslim north, and Ivorians that had been subject to persecution under the ivoirite laws. Ouattara also had on his side Guillaume Soro, a Catholic who was sitting as the Prime Minister. Soro was a former rebel leader from the north, but was put into the Prime Minister’s role as part of a multilateral negotiation that included Gbagbo (AFP, 2010) and Ouattara in defining the country’s political structure and its election ground rules.

The first round of the presidential election took place in early November, 2010. The results showed that Gbagbo had 38% of the vote, with Ouattara winning 32% and Henri Kotan Bedie taking 25% (Agendia, 2011). A runoff election was ordered for November 28, 2010. The independent electoral commission (CEI) announced election results that showed 54.1% of the vote went for Ouattara and 45.9% for Gbagbo. These results, however, were rejected by Gbagbo, who accused rebels in the north of rigging the election. A search of the Internet brings up accusations — unproven — included claims that in some polling areas Ouattara had more votes than exist registered voters, and that most members of the CEI are from the north and therefore sympathetic to Ouattara. There is speculation among members of the public that Ouattara could not have taken such a sizeable portion of Bedie’s supporters, as he typically feuded with Ouattara in the past and generally supported ivoirite policies (Africa Speaks, 2011). Such accusations may not comprise the official Gbagbo line, but they represent the views of some of his supporters.

Following the election, Ouattara declared himself the elected President (Nossiter, 2010). He set up in the Golf Hotel in the capital Abidjan and had the hotel protected by his security forces. Few visitors were allowed into the compound, including journalists, and Ouattara generally kept a low profile during the post-election period. He set up a provisional government and began to operate as leader in a limited capacity (Fessy, 2010). His supporters began a series of protests in December 2010, putting them into direct conflict with the pro-Gbagbo security forces. The supporters attempted to gain control of the country’s television station. The violence began to escalate as it became apparent that Gbagbo did not intend to step down (BBC, 2010). Guillaume Soro also made appeals to the international community to help resolve the standoff, allowing Ouattara to come to power (Oved, 2011).

Gbagbo initially had the country’s Constitutional Council annul the results of the election, wiping out votes from seven regions in the north on the grounds that returns from those regions contained irregularities. This, it was claimed by the Council, gave the election to Gbagbo (Monnier & Bax, 2010). With this, Gbagbo refused to cede power. He proclaimed himself President and underwent a swearing-in ceremony. His allies in the military and security forces backed him, setting the stage for the conflicts that followed. Gbagbo was also bolstered by his supporters both organized and unorganized, who also engaged in clashes with Ouattara supporters.

The conflict simmered below the level of civil war for some time. The Golf Hotel received shelling and there were ongoing street conflicts between factions loyal to each main belligerent. While Ouattara continued to use international diplomatic channels to shore up support, Gbagbo was unable to do so. Most outside observers feared the worst if the situation devolved any further. Many “foreign” workers with ties either recent or ancestral to nations like Mali and Burkina Faso left Ivory Coast during this period, having come under attacks from Gbagbo supporters. Internal displacement has been estimated at one million people and another 150,000 have reportedly fled in anticipation of greater violence, creating a humanitarian crisis (Ford, 2011). There is little doubt that had the situation escalated, the crisis would have been much greater.

The international community, therefore, was faced with a difficult situation. The humanitarian crisis demanded response, but the ramifications of allowing Ivory Coast to descend into all-out civil war were also untenable. For the international community, the humanitarian crisis was secondary to the economic concerns. Ivory Coast, one of the wealthier nations in the region during times of peace, is critical for the economic health of the region. Politically, the region has seen significant chaos in the past decade with multiple civil wars and conflicts. A failure to resolve the election conflict in Ivory Coast would have significant ramifications for political stability in West Africa. Thus, foreign nations had a substantial stake in assuring a peaceful outcome to the conflict and averting civil war would bring about a positive outcome both in terms of the humanitarian situation and the economic impact.

International Response

Almost unanimously, the international community supported Ouattara in the conflict. UN mission chief Young-jin Choi announced that the United Nations backed the election results showing Ouattara having won. The African Union proclaimed Gbagbo’s position on the matter to be a “farce.” Barack Obama urged Gbagbo to accept the election results showing Ouattara as winner. France also recognized Ouattara as the victor in the election (Monnier & Bax, 2010).

As the crisis emerged in December 2010, it became clear that the situation would not resolve itself in any peaceful way. Street conflicts in Abidjan threatened to escalate in wider violence. The military was siding with Gbagbo, but Ouattara’s forces had the moral imperative, having not only self-identified as the legitimate winners of the election, but having the full support of the international community. The need for action on the part of external forces was going to be necessary in order to avoid escalation of the conflict into outright civil war. There were effectively three main types of response from the international community — economic, humanitarian and political — and they came from a number of actors. The main international actors were the United Nations, the African Union and other African countries, France and the United States.

All external players undertook a policy of economic isolation of the Gbagbo regime. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is a regional trading bloc of which Ivory Coast is a member. The bloc began to put pressure on the Gbagbo regime to step down, and threatened Gbagbo with military action in order to back up this threat (Winspear, 2011). ECOWAS nations essentially negotiated with Gbagbo as a bloc, rather than individually, demonstrating unity for their position. ECOWAS suspended Ivory Coast when Gbagbo refused to step down (d’Aspremont, 2011). This relatively strong action clearly showed the position that the other West African countries wanted to take towards Gbagbo. The West’s economic response was to tighten Gbagbo’s access to financing. Ivory Coast does not operate with the budget surplus, and needs cash to run the country, including the military. The EU, U.S., Canada and others used sanctions and asset freezes in order to cut off funding to Gbagbo. When it was discovered that a Senegal-based bank had been funneling money to Gbagbo, it faced EU sanctions as well (Rubenfeld, 2011).

In a further attempt to cut off funding, a ban on cocoa exports was initiated. In response to that threat, Gbagbo nationalized the cocoa industry. This would give him more direct control over revenues, and in theory allow him to sell cocoa to any nation will to support him (AP, 2011). The economic sanctions represented a comprehensive effort to keep Gbagbo from financing military actions against Ouattara and his supporters. The strategy served to reduce the intensity of the armed element of the conflict without direct military intervention from Western forces.

The crisis also created a humanitarian crisis, as around 150,000 Ivorians fled the country and there were around a million internally displaced individuals. The United Nations estimated the financial need at $160 million, but response was minimal. Only $22 million was committed by the international community to meet the humanitarian need (Ford, 2011). This lack of response is interesting from a foreign policy perspective. The humanitarian crisis may not have been substantial in relation to what would have happened if a civil war had broken out, but it does stand in direct contrast to the high level of engagement at the political and economic level that external nations had. While many foreign powers were eager to become involved in the political conflict, none had much interest if any in the humanitarian aspects of the conflict. The EU was the largest donor, sending aid both to NGOs and to the states neighboring to Ivory Coast that were faced with the refugees. The European Investment Bank wrote off loans to the country, pending a resolution in favor of Ouattara (Ibid).

Outside of the general economic and humanitarian sphere, the political responses were nearly universal and quick to accept Ouattara as the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast. African nations have in the past been favorable to incumbents — Robert Mugabe has even garnered widespread African support at times — so their quick move to support Ouattara over Gbagbo seems to run against that trend. While the strength of their response — suspending the country from ECOWAS for example — was significant it was also noteworthy that leading nations in the region preferred to stand aside during the conflict. The leaders of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone were sent to ask Gbagbo to step down, rather than the leaders of regional leading countries (Winspear, 2010). Other leaders, such as Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, signed the request that the ECOWAS leaders submitted to Gbagbo to step down, but major heads of state did not want to take a leadership role in the conflict. For their part, both Burkina Faso and Mali have been implicated by pro-Gbagbo in providing support for pro-Ouattara forces, claims both nations denied.

The United States took a coordinating role in response to the conflict. Clearly aligned with Ouattara, the United States nonetheless did not want to risk open conflict, for a number of reasons including a desire to avoid a civil war in the country. One of the roles that the U.S. did play was to coordinate among ECOWAS countries to see how much military support they could provide for action against Gbagbo, or alternately what level of peacekeeping support they could provide. Ghana argued that it was unable to support a military mission but many other ECOWAS nations did offer to lend support to such a mission, including Liberia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo and Nigeria (Crossed Crocodiles, 2011). Other than this effort, American response was relatively muted. President Obama noted concern with respect to the humanitarian crisis including the killing of civilians in the conflict and repeatedly reiterated the position regarding the legitimacy of the Ouattara government and the need for Gbagbo to respect the election results and cede power (Obama Administration, 2011, 1).

The United Nations examined a number of policy options with regard to the conflict. The UN was very quick to recognize the legitimacy of the Ouattara and specifically approved the results of the election as fair. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon worked directly with Ouattara to provide him with support and information about the international effort to ensure his transition to power. The UN, however, did balk at a military conflict. Moon stated, for example, that the UN appreciated Ouattara’s “restraint and patience…even in the face of provocative acts” (Oved, 2011). The UK said it would back a UN-sponsored military action, lending some threat toward Gbagbo, but the UN chose to focus on finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The UN sent 2000 peacekeeping troops to Ivory Coast to protect Ouattara at the Golf Hotel and maintain peace in Abidjan (CNN, 2011, 2).

The UN also expressed concerns about human rights abuses, and noted the discovery of mass graves and singled out Gbagbo for the inciting his supporters to commit acts of political violence. The UN threatened Gbagbo with prosecution for these acts, a threat that the UN is now likely to follow through on since it now has possession of Gbagbo (Zebley, 2011, 1). The International Criminal Court is becoming involved in the situation, specifically with request to investigating Gbagbo for crimes committed against Ouattara supporters, in violation of the Rome Statute (Zebley, 2011, 2)

The strongest response, however, has come from France. The former colonial power in the country has long taken a great interest in Ivorian political affairs. France joined the rest of the international community in proclaiming Ouattara as the legitimate ruler of Ivory Coast, but its response beyond that was significantly different from the international response. While other external players — the UN, the U.S., ECOWAS — may have rattled their sabers, they chose not to fight and focused on actions that were supported by broad consensus. France chose to become directly involved in the conflict, for example lending air support to Ouattara. French forces took control of key transportation points and used attack helicopters to eliminate Gbagbo’s military capabilities. The move eventually led to Gbagbo’s arrest, allowing Ouattara to take power (NPR, 2011). France has also committed to keeping troops in the country throughout the transition period, ostensibly to maintain the peace but with the possibility of further military action if required.

The key to France’s actions is their past experience not just in Ivory Coast but in Africa in general. France was always wary of backing the Gbagbo regime, in part because of the ivoirite policy. France had the experience of backing a genocidal regime in Rwanda in 1994 and has been largely unwilling to support regimes suspected of having genocidal tendencies since that point. With only lukewarm support for Gbagbo, France nonetheless effectively sided with him in the 2002 civil war. The World Socialist Website — not an unbiased source — argued that France’s actions in the country were guided by economic interest at the time (Talbot, 2002). The move was the country’s largest into Africa since the colonial era ended, and its actions in Ivory Coast have been repeated in 2011, only this time in favor of Ouattara and against Gbagbo.

The argument has also been made that foreign response has largely been the result of Gbagbo’s international finance policies. He has borrowed heavily to finance his military, paying them in full while paying the rest of his staff only in part. There are reporters that Gbagbo’s men robbed the Abidjan branch of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) at gunpoint in order to make such payments. The Bank would eventually cut off his access to capital. Gbagbo also skipped interest payments on some of the country’s sovereign debt, and threatened to create a new currency and opt out of the Central African franc (Preston, 2011). That Ouattara may be more willing that Gbagbo to meet the needs of the country’s financiers whereas Gbagbo preferred to meet the needs of his military first may have sparked some of the strong international support for Ouattara, especially the very quick decision to declare him the elected leader.


The international community would typically rely on rules of thumb in order to make a determination such as the one to deem Ouattara the legitimate head of state for Ivory Coast. d’Aspremont (2011) points out that the international community largely relied on the reports from the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire, a body that would later provide peacekeeping for Ouattara. The UN was on hand to supervise the elections and deemed them fair. Most nations relied on the UN’s ruling to guide their policies. The decision was easy in most cases — with the UN on board there would be few if any consequences for taking a stand against Gbagbo. Only Angola and Lebanon supported the incumbent, and that support was ultimately irrelevant as neither merits much consideration on the international stage. With Gbagbo no longer the head of state, the UN rejected his call to withdraw its troops, citing Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Falling back on international law is a safe tactic, and allowed other nations to take their stands against Gbagbo.

These diplomatic moves at the outset of the crisis were to have uncertain effect, but they positioned the international community well for its response in the long run. In the short run, the moves did nothing to reduce Gbagbo’s intransigence, and this served to prolong the conflict. However, the longstanding nature of the conflict meant that Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power was likely going to plunge the country into a civil war. In this situation, the strong support of the international community for Ouattara was essential for him and his supporters to maintain a more peaceful tone in the face of provocation. Given Gbagbo’s military superiority, this restraint on the part of Ouattara almost certainly avoided further conflict.

Over time, this initial policy of cutting off Gbagbo’s lifelines and provided moral and logistical support for Ouattara positioned the international community to make the conflict with Gbagbo’s troops quick. They were able to quickly disarm the troops and make their arrest of Gbagbo. It is reasonable to expect that action taken earlier — or taken by ECOWAS military — would have lead to a longer and bloodier conflict. The international community was able to downplay the humanitarian crisis as well. Casualty reports were alarming but the numbers were not high. While undoubtedly the international community would have preferred to see fewer casualties, they were able to keep the casualty figures limited. Further, the ongoing French and UN presence in the country is likely to allow the process of reconciliation to begin.

There is considerable risk that the conflict will renew. Gbagbo was a main actor, but the conflict between him and Ouattara at the end of the 2010 election is not simply about the two men. They represent a nation that has deep divisions within its society. Ouattara does have the Catholic Soro on his side to help mend fences with the south, but for nearly half of Ivorians, the arrest of Gbagbo is a bitter defeat. On a practical level, they will have to live under the rule of a rival, but the defeat is on a more fundamental level as well. Gbagbo may have angered some in the international community by positioning himself as a champion for Ivorian rights and against colonial influence in the country. Many of his supporters will undoubtedly see the actions of the international community in what was essentially a domestic political issue as a further example of outside interference in the affairs of their nation. The French have once again used military force to protect their interests in the country. The saber-rattling of the ECOWAS nations hints at further instability in the country. The military might be disabled, but its loyalties are undecided at best. Many in the south have grown up with the concept of ivoirite and this will be difficult for them to surrender, especially as in a democratic society this may put them at a numeric disadvantage to the Muslims and “foreigners” in the north.

Future Outlook

The primary objective of the international effort in Ivory Coast was to avert a civil war and that has thus far been the case. The actions of the international community have given that community mandate to interfere again to protect the Ouattara government if there is any future outbreak in violence. However, if the secondary objective of the international effort was to set the stage for prolonged peace in Ivory Coast, then its actions have not likely succeeded. Success would have been determined on the basis of a negotiated settlement between the two belligerents that would have given some satisfaction to each side of the nation’s geographic and ethnic divide. Instead, the UN and the international community chose one side and lent full support to that side. Gbagbo’s supporters are more likely to see this as an affront to their rights — especially as “real” Ivorians — than a precise application of international law. This sows the seeds of future conflict, especially if Ouattara cannot win the support of the military.

However, there were also ethical issues at play. Although the issue was not stated as such, it is clear that France has long been suspicious of the ivoirite policy, on moral reasons certainly but also because it seems to stand against both its legacy and its economic interests in the country. There was a moral case from the outset against Gbagbo, in addition to his reluctance to pay the country’s debts.

Lastly, there was the possibility of a humanitarian crisis to consider. The ongoing, sporadic violence was of minimal concern to the international community, if aid money given is any indication, but the threat of a major humanitarian crisis in West Africa was palpable. Many of the surrounding nations that were to face a flood of refugees were unable to handle that, so the crisis would have been substantial. The world’s cocoa crop would also have been impacted had civil war been waged. Given that the international community sided with Ouattara at the outset, it became apparent that the only way to avoid the situation escalating into civil war was to remove Gbagbo from power. The mission, therefore, was largely a success in the short-term because it achieved that end and avoided the worst of the potential bloodshed. The situation in ongoing, so it remains to be seen whether or not the long-term impact of the international community’s response is going to be positive.


With Ouattara in power and Gbagbo facing investigation for his actions during the Ivory Coast election crisis, the international community appears to have implemented a successful collection of policy responses to the crisis. The early steps were unequivocal, setting the stage for the conflict but more importantly giving Ouattara’s forces the motivation to withstand the violence. The early steps were followed by economic sanctions that were well-targeted to help disable Gbagbo’s military capacity. The strong actions taken by ECOWAS told Gbagbo he could not count on his neighbors for help. When finally the time came to launch military action, Gbagbo had been sufficiently weakened that the action was swift and decisive.

The more difficult part of the international response actually begins now. The crisis averted successfully, the international community needs to take steps to ensure that the crisis does not become renewed. Ivory Coast remains a divided country, but under one leader. This solution is not necessarily ideal, and in some ways seems imposed on the country by the outside. The ongoing interference on foreign powers in Ivory Coast is one of the major underlying issues in the Ivorian political landscape so the actions of the international community are likely to enflame the southerners especially. Delicate work will need to be done both by Ouattara and the international community at this point. While it is positive that the country is able to engage in nation-building, that process faces a number of significant challenges.

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