April 2011 or April 1994? Seventeen Years Later, Libya is to Ivory Coast as Bosnia was to Rwanda
April 1, 2011
Geostrategic and Moral Imperatives: 2011If you switch on any of the myriad 24-hour news channel options right now, you will find the vast majority of international coverage focused on uprisings in the Middle East. In the last two months, the world has been captivated by seemingly revolutionary scenes of political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and now Libya.
The transformations unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East are incontrovertibly momentous, and threaten a seismic shift in the geopolitics of the region. In Libya, they have manifested themselves in the form of Muammar Gaddafi's bloody crackdown on citizens inspired by the pro-democracy protests elsewhere, which in turn spawned an armed rebellion. These sets of circumstances present dilemmas for the international community regarding the right path to take—morally, politically, and, because we are dealing with the Middle East, economically. In response to Gaddafi's violent attempts to crush dissent and his quite credible promise to go "house to house, room to room, to burn out the opposition," the United Nations Security Council voted to intervene to stop the killing of civilians. Since that time the U.S., Britain, France, and certain members of the Arab League have used air power to achieve this goal, and for now this tactic seems to have achieved its limited objectives. What will happen next is anyone's guess, and all eyes in New York, Washington, London, Paris, Brussels, and Cairo (not to mention at the headquarters of the world's major news organizations) will be focused on events in Libya around the clock.
Where these eyes will not be focused is on Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Yet on a day-by-day basis, civil war looms ever larger there, bringing with it an equal if not perhaps far greater threat to civilians than that faced by the Libyan people. The immediate background of this internal conflict in what has, in recent decades, been a very volatile region of West Africa, is in Ivory Coast's presidential elections of 2010. They were the first held in the country since the end of the Ivorian Civil War in 2004, and the results saw voters choose opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara over longtime president Laurent Gbagbo. The elections were seen as largely free and fair, and Ouattara was recognized as the next head of state of the Ivory Coast by the vast majority of the international community, including the African Union, and, more importantly, by the Ivorian Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). In response, Gbagbo (a man who already had the most dubious of democratic credentials) saw to it that loyalists on the Constitutional Council determined that the IEC had no authority, and named Gbagbo the winner. Both Ouattara and Gbagbo subsequently declared victory. Since December 2010, Ouattara has been holed up in the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, surrounded by his aides and protected by UN peacekeepers. Gbagbo, with the security apparatus of the state at his disposal, has the building surrounded with troops and loyal militia.
Statements of condemnation have been made and sanctions of debatable effectiveness put in place. Yet despite the presence of the United Nations peacekeeping force, UNOIC, which has been in Ivory Coast since 2004, the Ivorian crisis has not got nearly as much attention from the international community and major world powers—and by extension major media outlets—as events in the Middle East, particularly Libya.
In a sense, this is understandable. There is no denying the vital strategic interest much of the world has in the Middle East. This corner of West Africa offers little such importance. The problem for the international community, which could become a much bigger problem in the near future, is that the Ivorian crisis presents the same moral dilemma that forced its hand in Libya: an international pariah seen as illegitimate by a majority of his country's population, driving a conflict and deploying forces that threaten civilian lives. The difference is that in the Ivory Coast a very large minority supports that pariah, and the violence threatens to be ethnic, regional, and religious; it could far exceed that which we have seen in Libya. Indeed, the current set of circumstances is disturbingly reminiscent of those in the early months of 1994.
Geostrategic and Moral Imperatives: 1994
In 1994, the media focused its international coverage on civil war in the Balkans, a situation that had been spiraling out of control for years. From 1992 onwards the Balkans conjured visions of past events, as images of Bosnians in internment camps and massacres such as Srebrenica reminded viewers of the Holocaust and the Second World War. They reminded policy makers as well, and Europe, the U.S., and the United Nations fretted night and day (at an agonizingly slow pace) over the right course of action to take against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian paramilitaries as they conducted their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Eventually, after much debate, shaming, accusation, and domestic political wrangling within the participating nations, the international community not only commenced a bombing campaign, but expanded a UN presence to over 30,000 personnel.
The effectiveness of these measures varied, and has long been debated (just one example is the fact that the presence of UN peacekeepers did nothing to stop the Srebrenica massacre), but the efforts illustrate the time and resources the West was willing to dedicate to the crisis in the Balkans. The same cannot be said of Rwanda, where the breakdown of security was happening concurrently, in 1994. In 1993 the international community had committed a small UN peacekeeping force in the aftermath of a civil war ceasefire between the largely ethnic Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the largely Hutu Rwandan government. When, in April 1994, the president of Rwanda was killed in an assault on his aircraft, the extremist anti-Tutsi elements of the government took over, murdered all moderate members of the parliament and cabinet in Kigali, and began a campaign of mass killing against Rwandan Tutsi civilians. This prompted the RPF to scrap any peace agreements made, and begin an assault southwards from the northern part of the country they controlled. The Rwandan government's campaign against civilians eventually reached genocidal proportions, unfolding with a rapidity not seen in human history, only ending when the RPF took the country in June, 1994. By the time the smoke had cleared, 800,000 people had been killed. The international community's response? In April 1994 the UN Security Council, with major backing of the U.S., voted to strip the already-in-place peacekeeping mission to its bare bones. For their part, the U.S. media devoted more coverage to the spat between ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan than to the Rwanda Genocide.
If We Knew Then What We Know Now: Rwanda versus Ivory Coast
Today, we are witnessing major resources being committed to protect civilians in Libya. While this intervention is fraught with complications, at its core it is a commendable endeavor. The media's coverage from the region has been excellent, with many journalists putting themselves in harm's way for the sake of exposing the truth. But by contrast, the media has given little thought to events in Ivory Coast. In this era of 24-hour news, you could watch CNN International or BBC News all day and see ten hours of Middle East coverage, with little mention of West Africa.
Both the media and the international community ignore the situation at potentially great cost. Rwanda 1994 and Ivory Coast 2011 are certainly not mirror images of one another; yet contextual similarities do exist, and they are ominous. In Rwanda, the civil war of 1990-1993 was based on the politics of perceived political exclusion. Tutsi citizens saw a Hutu-dominated government as prohibitive to any aspirations they had and this was the basis for the RPF's 1990 invasion. Beyond that, since Rwandan and neighboring Burundian independence in 1962 there had been several major flashpoints of violence between the two ethnic groups, creating a collective historical memory of animosity between Tutsi and Hutu communities that could be whipped into a frenzy by political leaders if given a loud enough megaphone. That happened when the presidential plane was brought down in April, 1994, and a power vacuum created the opportunity for extremist elements of the Rwandan government to take over.
In Ivory Coast the roots of the conflict are also based on ethnic tensions, along with religious and xenophobic ones as well. Through decades of partnership with France, its former colonial ruler, Ivory Coast had built the strongest economy in West Africa. As a result, many immigrants from poorer countries in the interior, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, have come to the country for economic opportunity. Many have lived there for generations and share a common ethnicity and religion with Muslim Ivorians from the north, as opposed to the mostly Christian south. In the 1990s, however, the Ivorian economy took a downturn. Therefore in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, tensions were high and violence against foreigners was on the rise. If in Rwanda, political exclusivity was perceived, albeit rightly, in Ivory Coast it was legislated. Just prior to the election, a referendum was held that made a presidential candidate eligible only if he could prove both parents were born in the country. One of the excluded candidates was Ivorian-born Alassane Ouattara—and the winner was Laurent Gbagbo (in 2005 Gbagbo gave in to opposition demands that Ouattara be allowed to run in the next election). War broke out in 2002 when troops who hailed from the north mutinied and a northern rebel group, the New Forces, attacked the government, and lasted until a ceasefire was agreed upon in 2004.
The situation today is of a man who will not relinquish power to a rightful electoral winner, and who has long used his bully pulpit to demonize northerners as non-Ivorian invaders, much as the Hutu government did through radio broadcasts about Tutsi citizens—that Tutsis were an invading 'other' with no right to be in the country. Equally crucial, and again like in Rwanda, there is a rebel army still situated behind a northern ceasefire line that could declare a state of hostility at any moment. Any number of things could trigger a resumption of full-scale civil war. Indeed, given the current international climate Gbagbo could be forgiven for thinking that he could storm the Golf Hotel, murder a certain number of UN peacekeepers, and the world would do nothing, and perhaps even withdraw the UN force there—much as happened the early days of April 1994 in Rwanda. The response to such an action would surely be the New Forces reaching for their weapons and marching south, indeed there are many indications this may be underway already. What is absolutely clear is that the violence is on the rise. As of late March, 2011, we are approaching 500 killed and tens of thousands displaced, particularly in the west of the country where militias and soldiers have been exchanging fire, and rebels have taken control of several key towns. Refugees are now pouring into neighboring Liberia, itself less than a decade out of a civil war and of questionable stability. In recent days there have been horrifying reports of over 15,000 pro-Gbagbo youths arriving at army headquarters in Abidjan to enlist. Their training will no doubt consist of being handed a uniform and a Kalashnikov, or, if Rwanda is any guide, they will be supplied with more rudimentary weapons and told to form militias.
This Time, Be Ready
Perhaps the international community does not want to put more focus on this crisis because it is clear that there are two sides and that these two sides have "tribal" hatreds, plus there are political concerns which complicate the discourse and decision-making process. But this is also true of Libya, and if the rationale of intervention there is violence against civilians, then we can hope that policy makers are preparing contingency operations for Ivory Coast as well. If the war resumes there, where towns and villages are ethnically mixed, we will certainly witness inter-communal violence, perhaps on a large scale. One foresees images of armed, undisciplined militia and rebels brutalizing women, children, and the elderly based on suspicion of loyalties. This is surely going on to some degree already, and policy makers may soon be faced with the question as to how much they are willing to let it escalate.
The internal contextual comparisons between the Balkans in 1994 and the Middle East crises of 2011 are limited at best. They were and are, however, both of arguably great moral, political and, in the latter case, economic importance. They roused public opinion, commanded air time, and had world leaders quickly on the phone to one another and facing press conferences. Their geopolitical importance is enhanced by being in Eastern Europe, or on the Mediterranean Sea, or close to the Suez Canal, to say nothing of the impact on oil prices and concerns about Islamic militancy. As we have seen, there are many comparisons one can draw between the Rwanda of 1994 and Ivory Coast of 2011, and the potential for targeted civilian victims in Ivory Coast is great. Whether the violence in Ivory Coast could be even a fraction of what we saw in Rwanda 17 years ago is purely speculative, and we can only hope not. But based on the attention the crisis has thus far garnered from the international community and media, their most important similarity seems to be that they are both small countries in sub-Saharan Africa of negligible strategic and economic value. It appears obvious the civil and political rights of the people of such countries do not warrant the discussions at the highest levels as do those in the Middle East. What about their right to life?
A recent New
article make clear just how backwards senior officials seem to grasp these
two situations. The newspaper quotes Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. Ambassador
to Croatia, warning Samantha Power, the director of Multilateral Affairs and
Human Rights at the National Security Council and longtime human rights advocate,
not to let Libya become "Obama's Rwanda." They can rest easy about
that; what is unfolding there could well be Obama's Yugoslavia. The administration
may yet have a "Rwanda" catastrophe, but not in North Africa.