>By Reed Kramer
Washington, DC — With the African Union (AU) intensifying efforts to resolve the ongoing political stalemate in Cote d’Ivoire, concern is growing about the widening impact of the crisis. In the wake of presidential elections, clashes have spread within Cote d’Ivoire and refugees are pouring into neighboring Liberia.
A panel of experts appointed by the African Union is in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, this week for discussions with the country’s rival political leaders. Alassane Ouattara is the internationally acknowledged victor in last November’s run-off vote, but Laurent Gbagbo, who has been president for a decade, calls the results invalid and refuses to leave office.
The 20-member AU team is to report early next week to the five heads of state who were designated as mediators at the African Union summit late last month. Previous mediation efforts by both the AU and the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) failed to end the impasse.
“The decision to mount another mission supported by an expert group was made by consensus,” according to Liberian Foreign Minister Togo McIntosh, who accompanied President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the closed-door summit session in Addis Ababa. “That meeting gave us some confidence that the cracks we had seen in the preceding two weeks were disappearing and that Africa could once again speak with one voice on the issue,” he said in an interview in Washington.
After the elections were held on November 28, there was “almost a unified view as to the outcome,” McIntosh said. The United Nations Security Council, the AU and Ecowas all accepted Cote d’Ivoire’s Independent Electoral Commission’s certification of Ouattara as the winner by an eight percent margin. When Gbagbo rejected the consensus, citing a subsequent ruling by the Constitutional Court, a series of interlocutors sought to win his concession and increasing pressure was applied.
The international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, has continued to back the Security Council decision recognizing Ouattara as the elected leader. There was “overwhelming” unity on the election outcome and “hope for a peaceful transition,” U.S. Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire Phillip Carter said last week.
To press the search for peace, the AU decided to launch another diplomatic push, involving one leader from each region, and gave them a one-month timetable to find a solution. The five, who are to meet for the first time when they receive the expert panel’s findings, include Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Idriss Déby of Chad, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma.
However, the united African front was dented this week when Ecowas president James Victor Gbeho of Ghana complained that the presence of a South African naval replenishment ship in waters off Cote d’Ivoire could encourage Gbagbo to hold onto power. The charge was dismissed by South Africa’s ambassador to Nigeria, Kingsley Mamabolo, who told AFP “there is nothing amiss about the vessel,” which he said could be used to evacuate civilians or host negotiations and was not on a military mission.
His comments reflect the view that South Africa, along with Angola, Cape Verde, Gambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe have been tilting in favor of Gbagbo. Those governments viewed as backing Ouattara include Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya and Burkina Faso.
Past and present leaders who have traveled to Abidjan since December to mediate include former presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, as well as Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The AU also sent a high-level team headed by Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma for talks last month with the U.S. administration in Washington and the United Nations in New York. Other AU representatives went to Europe and to Asia for similar discussions. All these efforts helped to reinvigorate a united approach, McIntosh said.
President Johnson Sirleaf has also played an influential role behind the scenes, her foreign minister said. She was asked to be a member of the first Ecowas delegation to Abidjan but decided to participate in other ways, he said, including being constantly engaged by telephone. He said the views she presented during the AU summit debate were well received by the leaders taking part. Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire’s other next-door neighbors – Sierra Leone, Guinea – have been among the strongest backers of negotiations, along with Ghana, Libya, Congo, Gabon, Cameroun and Tanzania.
The impact of the Ivorian crisis on Liberia has been significant, and the toll is rising. The flow of Ivorians fleeing across the border began as soon as tensions rose, immediately after the election results were announced. Well over 30,000 refugees are spread among more than two-dozen Liberian villages, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. “Our people took them into their homes; they made sacrifices,” McIntosh said. “We hoped the crisis would end quickly,” but, instead, the problem has grown far beyond Liberia’s capacity to cope.
McIntosh said he is asking UNHCR to play a larger leading role. Three camps that have been constructed to house the influx are already insufficient, and Unicef, the UN children’s fund, predicts that the number of refugees will top 50,000 this month.
A much smaller number have fled to Guinea, but Unicef says the total number in the region may hit 100,000 by April, if the Ivorian stalemate remains unresolved. Compounding the refugees’ plight are the poor road conditions, making access difficult and expensive – a situation that will worsen when the rainy season begins, usually by early May. Emergency supplies have been airlifted into the remote border area by two UN-chartered flights.
“We are seeing if we can get some help on the roads from UNMIL,” McIntosh said. UNMIL is the United Nations Mission in Liberia, the peacekeeping force that has been on the ground since 2003 and currently has some 8,000 soldiers and 1,345 police.
“We also need help with security in the camps and along the border,” he said. The boundary between Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire stretches for some 2,000 km (600 miles) and is not well demarcated. With rising cross-border movement, there is increasing need for police and immigration capacity in that area, he said.
“Our people are very much worried,” said McIntosh. “They are tired of war.” Memories are still fresh from more than 14 years of civil conflict that uprooted more than two-thirds of Liberia’s population and killed as many as a quarter of a million people.
A worsening situation in Cote d’Ivoire threatens Liberia’s security, he said, and comes at a particularly critical moment for the nascent democracy. National elections take place in October. Holding a second successful election is “a critical test” that should not be imperiled by “trouble in the neighborhood”, he said. “We have accomplished so much, but we are not yet out of the woods. We have so much more to do.”