Can Ouattara unite Ivory Coast?


A street vendor sells portraits of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara and Ivorian flags at a market in Yamoussoukro on May 20, 2011, before his investiture ceremony which is due to be held on May 21. Alassane Ouattara is due to be sworn on May 21 as the president of long-troubled Ivory Coast, which he hopes to reunite after a bloody crisis when his predecessor refused to step down.


Sia Kambou

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast's new president Alassane Ouattara is doing his best to make his inauguration ceremony Saturday seem as joyous and organized as possible.

But behind the rows of cheering citizens that line the roads sit fire-blackened and bullethole-ridden storefronts, the remnants of the short war he fought to seize power from his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to leave office despite losing the November election. 

One month after Gbagbo's capture, the war is officially over and foreign dignitaries are here to attend the swearing-in, hoping to kick off a new era of stability and prosperity in a country that was once the envy of Africa.

Ouattara must unite a country that is still recuperating from a civil war and that has regional, ethnic and religious differences, with nearly half its 21 million people Muslim and the other half Christian. 

Ouattara's credentials as a former International Monetary Fund vice president have drawn pledges of aid money and loans from around the world, not to mention widespread confidence that if anyone can put Ivory Coast back on its feet, it's him.

United Nations and European Union sanctions have been lifted and trade by sea, rail and road is already picking up — though a walk down a main commercial street in Abidjan, the country's biggest city, reveals that only half the stores have reopened.

The dome of one of the world's tallest basilicas looms over the jungle in Ivory Coast's political capital of Yamoussoukro, where preparations are being made for the ceremony.

Armed convoys of SUVs race through this normally sleepy town, while crews hang flags from the lamposts. Other than their new orange armbands and likely-stolen black boots, Ouattara's "republican" army of former rebels is still the rag-tag bunch that conquered the country in a matter of days in late March before being pinned down by Gbagbo's superior army in Abidjan. There, the fighting was intense and the sandal-wearing soldiers only succeeded in arresting Gbagbo once French helicopters joined the battle, bombarding military bases and Gbagbo's own home.

A French armored column secured the area and all but held the door open for the former rebels, who paraded the president, his wife, family and inner circle of advisers in front of the cameras, disheveled, humiliated and defeated.

Though the perpetrators are difficult to identify, either Ouattara's men or their supporters then departed on a bacchanal tour of revenge and destruction, pillaging stores, stealing cars, raping women and killing entire families. The security vacuum that opened after Gbagbo's fall provided the perfect opportunity for long-standing animosities between families, clans and ethnicities to rise up, and the mass graves being found not only in the country's "wild west," but also in its biggest city stand as proof of the hundreds, if not thousands, of revenge killings that may never be solved.

Earlier this month, Ouattara wrote to the International Criminal Court to ask them to intervene, saying that the Ivorian justice system isn't capable of pursuing those officials responsible for the crimes committed in the nearly five months between the election that Ouattara won and Gbagbo's arrest.

Ouattara is right on several fronts. First, because the death squads that preyed on Ouattara supporters immediately following the election may well have been under orders from the highest officials in Gbagbo's regime. Judges appointed by the former president could be hesitant about going after their friends and former colleagues.

Second, because after Gbagbo was captured the revenge killings may well have been orchestrated by some of Ouattara's own commanders, or could benefit members of his government, especially when land disputes are involved. Going after these people could fracture Ouattara's political support, which is at the base an "anyone but Gbagbo" coalition.

In the short time he's exercised power, Ouattara has already launched several highly-visible public works initiatives, from fixing pot holes and streetlamps to digging drainage trenches in chronically-flooded areas. The message is clear: The war is over and life under Ouattara is going to be better than it was under Gbagbo, a decade during which infrastructure crumbled and the living standard plummeted.

But to what extent these works paper over the real problems isn't clear.

In pro-Gbagbo neighborhoods, the youths, chest-thumpingly proud and very aggressive only weeks ago, have been cowed and walk down the street staring at their feet. Almost half the country voted for the former president and feel personally disgraced by the turn of events. Despite the string of high-profile Gbagbo supporters pleading on television every night to turn the page, the average Gbagbo supporters are, at best, resigned to Ouattara's rule. At worst, they are plotting to overthrow it.

Rumors of pro-Gbagbo soldiers and officials holding strategy meetings in neighboring Ghana are rampant, and confirmed by at least one Gbagbo official who is making calls to the international press from an undisclosed location across the border. The situation is also complicated by the delicate balance that Ouattara must strike between arresting Gbagbo's security apparatus and co-opting it to work for the new government.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq, disbanding the army and leaving thousands of trained soldiers unemployed and with nothing to do but plot terror attacks," said a senior advisor to Ouattara. "But now we've got the (pro-Gbagbo) gendarmes and the (pro-Ouattara) Republican forces, who used to be enemies, working side by side. It's not easy," said the official, who asked not to be named because he isn't permitted to talk to the press.

In the 1990s, Ouattara served as Prime Minister under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who led the former French colony to independence in 1960 and who ruled until his death in 1993. Ouattara was Prime Minister at the tail end of Ivory Coast's glory years when the country's highways and hydro dams, its music and literature, its skating rink and replica of St. Peter's Basilica were the envy of all of Africa.

Unlike many of France's former colonies, Ivory Coast chose to keep close ties with the former colonial master and built a robust economy on coffee and cocoa exported around the world.

As Ouattara assumes the reins of power, it seems he will be looking abroad for help. The attendance of at least 20 world leaders expected at the swearing-in indicates that he'll get that assistance. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough for Ivory Coast to resolve its bitter differences and work together for a return to stability and prosperity.