For weeks, the U.N.’s mission in the Ivory Coast has sat pinned down in its quarters, watching as this West African country lurched toward civil war. An escalating conflict between the rival forces of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara has led to hundreds, probably thousands of deaths and has displaced, by some counts, over a million people in this nation of 22 million. In early March, the International Crisis Group, a global conflict watchdog, slammed the U.N. mission (known by its acronym UNOCI) for being “unable to implement its mandate to protect civilians subjected to violence or the threat of violence.”
But at 5 p.m. local time today, backed by a new Security Council resolution passed March 30, U.N. helicopters took flight and targeted some of Gbagbo’s military camps around the main city of Abidjan. A statement made by the office of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon justified the attacks:
In the past few days, forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have intensified and escalated their use of heavy weapons such as mortars, rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine guns against the civilian population in Abidjan.
These forces have also targeted the Headquarters of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) at Sebroko Hotel with heavy-calibre sniper fire as well as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Four peacekeepers have been wounded in these attacks. Furthermore, forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have attacked UNOCI patrols dispatched to protect civilians and convoys transporting wounded in Abidjan, resulting in several more wounded peacekeepers.
Consequently, pursuant to paragraph 6 of Security Council resolution 1975 (2011) of 30 March 2011, I have instructed the Mission to take the necessary measures to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population…
The strikes come at a moment when the longstanding political impasse paralyzing the Ivory Coast looks to have tipped over into open war. Ever since an election last November — which observers hoped would cement democratic rule in what was once a regional powerhouse — the country has been torn between the forces of its ruling incumbent Gbagbo and those of Ouattara, who was recognized by the U.N. and the international community as the election’s victor, but not by Gbagbo himself. A tense standoff between the two camps, both of which set up parallel governments, rapidly deteriorated in the past month. Now, according to reports, soldiers loyal to Ouattara are launching an offensive on Abidjan in a bid to finally push out the besieged Gbagbo. French troops have already seized control of Abidjan’s main airport, in part with the aim of evacuating expatriates, including 12,000 French citizens, who are now caught in the crossfire.
While the U.N. claims its over 9,000 soldiers on the ground are “not a party to the conflict” and only taking action in “self defence and to protect civilians,” it’s unclear whether peacekeepers will also strike at pro-Ouattara forces found in violation of the new Security Council resolution. This past Saturday, reports suggest Outtara militia were largely responsible for the massacre of perhaps over 1000 civilians — according to one Catholic charity — in the western town of Duekoue, but the alleged slaughter there garnered no explicit mention in Ban’s statement today.
Gbagbo and his supporters have harped on the apparent antipathy of the international community, spying in both France and the U.N.’s hostility the seeds of a “colonial” takeover. In their opposition to Ouattara, his camp has also tried to play on xenophobic fears of supposed interlopers and outsiders — a significant proportion of the country is descended from earlier waves of migrant labor from elsewhere in West Africa.
The violent rhetoric and increasingly violent confrontations carry echoes of an earlier civil war in the country that divided its north and south until a ceasefire in 2006. The bulk of Ouattara’s forces in the current offensive reportedly mobilized in the strongholds of the former northern rebellion, sweeping south in the past few weeks and seizing Yamoussoukro, the country’s political and administrative capital inland. Cornered and isolated, Gbagbo can avert further bloodshed by negotiating his exit. But that looks at present unlikely, and it seems the U.N., backed by an independent French force, may still have a pronounced military role to play.