A disputed election, certain leading military commanders take up refuge in a neighbouring state and the threat of a rebellion that risks blowing things apart for the new president. That was Ivory Coast 2000-2002, and some are pointing out, is the situation today as well. And so yesterday morning, Ivory Coast’s leading private newspaper, ‘L’Inter’ warns on its front page: “Attention Syndrome 2002”.
A decade ago it was Issiaka Ouattara (Wattao), Cherif Ousmane and Ibrahim Coulibaly (IB) who’d fled to Burkina Faso and then returned in September 2002 to unsuccessfully attempt a coup, which transformed into a rebellion. Now the figures are Jean Noel Abehi, commander of the armed division of the Gendarmerie, Colonel Boniface Konan, commander of the Marine commando riflemen (Fumaco) and the rapid intervention unit, and Colonel Alphonse Gouanou, ex-commander of the eastern tactical division.
So, a potent mix of pro-Gbagbo military commanders in exile along with hundreds of ex-military, a sense of injustice in the pro-Gbagbo camp at being ejected from power (first by voters, than by the international community and finally by a military force), and numerous precedents on the continent do seem to pose a danger for the Ouattara regime.
But despite the sense of panic in some newspaper articles, I can’t see how a pro-Gbagbo rebellion could reasonably succeed and the new regime is openly taking a number of steps to protect itself. Firstly, the UN peacekeeping mission chief, Young Jin-Choi is concerned – by the end of July they should have finished setting up eight new military bases in the far west of the country (always the most unstable area, and close to potential mercenary recruits in neighbouring Liberia). A ninth base is being built in Aboisso, the first major town on the coast road from Ghana towards Abidjan. All this would seem to be squarely aimed at heading off problems from the two countries likely to be chosen by a pro-Gbagbo invading force.
While the potential for a military threat is clearly present, it remains hard to see what sort of positive outcome an attempt could achieve. An outside attack, possible supported by pro-Gbagbo elements in the new army, could cause considerable damage, but the presence of nearly 10,000 UN peacekeepers and 250 French soldiers creates a formidable block of support to the current regime.
Secondly, such coup attempts generally rely on foreign backing, but Laurent Gbagbo’s isolation was amply demonstrated during the crisis and Gbagbo allies like Angola, Zimbabwe and The Gambia are unlikely to be willing or interested in promoting civil war in Ivory Coast. The new president is in regular contact with the presidents of both Liberia to the west and Ghana to the east, where large numbers of pro-Gbagbo Ivorians are living as refugees.
So, without much international backing and given the large peacekeeping force, the most optimistic coup plotter could probably only hope for a prolonged civil war and some sort of power-sharing settlement.
Nevertheless the threat remains, investors are wary and while pro-Gbagbo extremists will never accept Ouattara as president, the new government can do a lot to win over more moderate elements, while keeping an eye on the vast funds that appeared to vanish during the last ten years and could fuel an attempted takeover. The post-election crisis is expected to have taken around ten percentage points off national economic growth this year, but the new government is showing itself at work, with moves to repair roads, pick up waste and reduce checkpoint corruption already helping to convince Ivorians that this new government is serious and can offer something to the country.
The next six months are crucial to building a foundation for 2012. Providing the situation continues to settle down, legislative elections are successfully completed, everyone gets used to the new regime, and the ex-IMF man doesn’t make life too difficult for certain sections of society who may see perks suddenly disappear, then confidence will return and good governance, rigour and anti-corruption strategies should bear fruit in the coming years.