Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo is battling to remain in power as rival Alassane Ouattara’s forces surround the main city of Abidjan. Much of the fighting is concentrated around Gbagbo’s heavily fortified presidential palace. Ouattara’s forces are estimated to control as much as 80 percent of the Ivory Coast. We speak to Corinne Dufka, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, and Ivory Coast political analyst Gnaka Lagoke of AfricanDiplomacy.com. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In the West African nation of Ivory Coast, fighting has erupted in the country’s main city of Abidjan after supporters of the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, entered the city Thursday in an attempt to depose incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after a disputed election. Some of the heaviest fighting has been outside Gbagbo’s presidential palace. France’s ambassador to Ivory Coast says that Gbagbo has fled his Abidjan compound and is nowhere to be found.
Forces loyal to Ouattara have also seized control of the country’s state television. Earlier this week, they took control of the country’s capital, Yamoussoukro, and the cocoa port of San Pedro with little resistance. French soldiers have also been deployed in Abidjan to protect foreign residents.
The United Nations says Gbagbo lost a run for re-election last November to Ouattara, but he has so far refused to cede power. Earlier today, the African Union urged Gbagbo to immediately hand over power. Some police units and the head of the army have defected from the embattled leader.
On Thursday, Ouattara called for the country’s military to join his forces.
ALASSANE OUATTARA: [translated] Today they are at the doorsteps of Abidjan. To all those who are still hesitating, whether you are generals, superior officers, officers, under officers, rank-and-file soldiers, I ask you to put yourself at the disposal of your country and thereby return to legality. There is still time to join your brothers in arms. The republican forces, the country calls you.
AMY GOODMAN: Alassane Ouattara’s forces are estimated to control as much as 80 percent of the Ivory Coast.
To discuss the situation there, we’re joined on the phone by Corinne Dufka, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. She’s joining us from Dakar, Senegal. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Gnaka Lagoke, an Ivory Coast political analyst. He runs the website AfricanDiplomacy.com.
We’re going to go first to Corinne Dufka. Describe what you understand is happening now on the ground, what you are most concerned about.
CORINNE DUFKA: Yes. Good day to everyone.
Yes, we understand the situation is very, very tense indeed in Abidjan. This is the — seems to be the culmination of a four-month-long crisis, in which we have seen atrocities of the worst kind being committed in Abidjan, primarily by militias and those allied to Laurent Gbagbo. We understand the fighting is concentrated around the presidential palace, as well as around the presidential residence and around a key gendarme camp in a place called Agban, where some people think the president and his allies — the former president and his allies may be.
We were primarily concerned that as the — Ouattara’s forces flooded into Abidjan, that the militias allied to Gbagbo, who have over the last several months been committing awful killings and so on, primarily against those real and perceived supporters of Ouattara, would begin to conduct very massive atrocities. That appears not to have happened, simply because I think the pace at which Ouattara’s offensive occurred has left them either fleeing or has pushed them into their places of concentration to defend themselves.
We also understand that there have been some reprisal killings in the West, which recently fell to Ouattara’s forces. We, yesterday, denounced a massacre by Gbagbo’s forces, including Liberian mercenaries, of some 40 West Africans, primarily Malians and Burkinabés. Also, our team in the border area in Liberia-Côte d’Ivoire have recently documented about eight killings by Ouattara’s forces. So, a very, very tense situation, indeed.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Corinne Dufka, the reaction of the international community, given all of the attention that the popular uprisings in northern Africa have received and the repression of those authoritarian governments there — how do you assess the reaction of the international community to what is going on in the Ivory Coast?
CORINNE DUFKA: Well, it was quite disappointing, to be honest. We felt that there wasn’t enough attention given to the very serious human rights abuses, which, we have characterized, could very well rise to the level of crimes against humanity. The United Nations estimates some 500 people have been killed in the last four months. We didn’t see until quite recently a strong enough reaction on the part of the Security Council, although the European Union and the United States did initiate some sanctions against Gbagbo and his people.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, as you’ve said. In a unanimous vote, the Council authorized travel restrictions and an asset freeze on Gbagbo, his wife and three close associates. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, praised the vote.
AMB. SUSAN RICE: This resolution sends a strong signal: Mr. Gbagbo and his followers should immediately reject violence and respect the will of the Ivorian people. As violence continues, Côte d’Ivoire stands at a crossroads. Mr. Gbagbo and his supporters can continue to cling to power, which will only lead to more innocent civilians being wounded and killed and more diplomatic and economic isolation. Or Mr. Gbagbo and his followers can finally reject violence and respect the will of the Ivorian people. If this path is chosen, Ivorians can reclaim their country and rebuild a vibrant economy that was once the admiration of all of Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, talking about Côte d’Ivoire — in English, Ivory Coast. Gnaka Lagoke also with us, a political analyst, runs AfricanDiplomacy.com. Your response to the situation there, what the U.N. has done, and what you feel needs to be done?
GNAKA LAGOKE: Thank you very much, Amy Goodman, and thank you for having me back on your show.
The reality on the ground is very, very serious and very complicated. Alassane Dramane Ouattara’s forces, as we know, have been progressing and taking cities, you know, from the central part of the country to the western part of the country, and now they are in Abidjan, trying to dislodge Gbagbo or trying to kill Gbagbo Laurent.
I know that Gbagbo’s forces have committed some human rights violations, but I am surprised that all that noise is made about Gbagbo’s people killing innocent people in the Ivory Coast, and people are not putting emphasis on Alassane Ouattara’s people who have been committing many violations in the western part of the country, and they have killed, killed civilians in different parts of the country.
The United Nations is involved in the crisis, and they decided to become the king maker. And at the same time, the U.N. and the French forces — that’s the reality on the ground — they are backing Alassane Ouattara’s forces, and they are giving them a strategic support with their warplanes. And there are even people out there, witnesses, who are saying that they have seen French soldiers shooting at Gbagbo’s soldiers. This is also the reality on the ground.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you have raised, in the past, questions about how the international community has dealt with the entire process, even the conclusion as to who won the recent election. Could you expound on that?
GNAKA LAGOKE: Yeah, of course. When I came here, when I was given the opportunity by Amy, I said that, at that time, that I did not know who won the election. I still believe that, you know, it is not clear. And later on, I found some evidence, of a communiqué from the United Nations, a report from France 24, most all of them, they said that the participation rate of the election could not go beyond 70 percent. When the president of the electoral commission announced Alassane Ouattara the winner of the election, they announced that the participation rate was 81 percent. This is not possible, because Ivorians did not go out to vote massively during the runoff.
Now, instead of trying to find a way to solve the situation, the United Nations has taken side, and the President of the United States, for whom I have a great respect and great admiration, he played his card too soon, and then, of course, you know, they decided to opt for a military intervention. And we can see that Ivorians are dying in the country. And even the economic sanctions, they did not spare the Ivorian people irrespective of their political affiliation, irrespective of their ethnicity, irrespective of their religion, because people don’t have access to their medication because of the embargo, and people don’t have access to their saving and their money, their account. And the international community is not talking about all those things. And that’s my role, to try to bring something, you know, other people are not talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: Corinne Dufka, your response to what Gnaka Lagoke is saying?
CORINNE DUFKA: Well, first of all, former President Gbagbo agreed to allow the United Nations to certify the results of those elections. They were massively monitored. The United Nations certified the result of the elections, which were then backed up by the European Union, the African Union, the regional body ECOWAS, bilaterally, of course, by most nations. So I think his position is certainly a minority report.
Now, in terms of the violations, we also have documented some violations by Ouattara, but I could say that the vast majority of them, certainly in the capital Abidjan, have been committed by those forces allied to Gbagbo, and Gbagbo has done absolutely nothing to rein in the militias, to rein in and try to control state-controlled media, who have been inciting forces to commit acts, and certainly has done nothing to investigate or hold those responsible. I personally have documented 20 cases of Malians, Burkinabés, northern Ivorians, who have been pulled from their cars or stopped at checkpoints manned by militiamen, hacked to death, burned alive and so on, in additional to 20 cases of women who have been motivated by militiamen and members of the security forces. We are saying that all sides to this conflict now must abide by international humanitarian law, and we are warning against reprisal killings that could take place in the future.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Corinne Dufka, what about the allegation of Gnaka Lagoke in terms of the role of the French and of French soldiers in the country?
CORINNE DUFKA: Well, President Gbagbo has tried — former President Gbagbo has tried to put this in terms of, you know, a dynamic of being sort of former colonialists and so on. The French peacekeepers are there. They have been part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission. They are patrolling. They have, over the last several days, rescued a number of foreigners, European Union and others, who have come under threat. They have about 500 of them now in their base. We spoke with civilians who have felt reassured by the French and U.N. presence, because they are patrolling in neighborhoods that have been vulnerable to this kind of abuse. But this is very much an Ivorian problem, and we don’t see it as being a problem of France or the United Nations trying to impose a leader. Rather, again, former President Gbagbo agreed to allow the United Nations to certify the results of those elections, and that’s what they did.
AMY GOODMAN: And Corinne Dufka, the significance of Ivory Coast in the region?
CORINNE DUFKA: Yes. Ivory Coast, for many, many, many, many years, was the economic powerhouse of the region. And in many ways, the economic success of Ivory Coast was in part due to the work of West African laborers, from Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, all over, really, who helped raise the economic status of that country to be the first — the first — or the largest, rather, exporter of cacao and the largest economy in French-speaking West Africa. So, it’s a very important economy. And, you know, in the last 10 years, we’ve tragically seen rule of law deteriorate and, of course, the once quite solid standing, economic standing, of the country and lifestyle, as well, deteriorate.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Gnaka Lagoke, how do see this crisis being resolved? Do you think that Gbagbo will have to go? Or what other solution do you envision?
GNAKA LAGOKE: At this moment, I don’t know how, because if Gbagbo should have gone maybe, you know, before the war, and — but he decided, you know, to stay, because there are many people who believed that he should stay, you know, to continue the struggle for sovereignty, while other people think that it is a matter of democracy. And so, I think that the winner of the fight, of the war, or the civil war, is going to become the ruler of the country. But I can tell you that it’s going to be difficult for either Gbagbo Laurent or Alassane Ouattara to rule that country.
And one thing I just wanted to say to, you know, the lady who was talking about Gbagbo Laurent, in Ivory Coast, it is not a matter of angel or demon, or somebody who’s a hero and somebody who’s a villain. Alassane Dramane Ouattara has founded the rebellion. He has created a civil war in the country in 2002. And as we speak, you know, people don’t want to look at facts. His forces are the one that have attacked Gbagbo’s forces. And then I’m surprised that most of the killings that have been reported by the international community is like — most of the time is about Gbagbo’s people killing people. So, in Ivory Coast, both of them are tragic heroes, and they are in the central part of the tragedy of the country. And I think that this is what people should look at.
AMY GOODMAN: Uh —
GNAKA LAGOKE: Talking about the French — yes, Amy?
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.
GNAKA LAGOKE: Yeah, talking about the French, people keep saying that there is not a neocolonial aspect of the crisis. So, that’s ridiculous, because the French are — French people have colonized Ivory Coast. They are particularly involved, like, in the crisis in Ivory Coast. And then, when they say that they’re protecting civilians, you will see that those people have been giving like a support to Alassane Dramane’s forces. So, even if it is under the umbrella of the United Nations, when we see a former colonial master involved in, like, an internal crisis of a country taking side against a president just because they think that they don’t control him, we call that neocolonialism. There is not another way to describe that situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Corinne Dufka, the platform of Ouattara and the allegation that Gnaka Lagoke is making of it was Ouattara who attacked?
CORINNE DUFKA: Yes. Well, first of all, he’s absolutely right that there are no angels, as he said. Côte d’Ivoire has extremely serious problems when it comes to rule of law. Indeed, there is really a crisis of impunity that has been deepening in the last 10 years. And during the armed conflict that he referred to in 2000 and 2003, both sides committed extremely serious abuses.
So, when Alassane Ouattara — if Alassane Ouattara indeed takes over the reins of the — the political reins of the country, he will inherit extremely serious problems, economic problems, problems with disarmament, which should have happened many months ago, as well as these rule-of-law problems in the key rule-of-law sectors — the police, the judiciary, accountability and so on. So, these will be extremely pressing challenges that he will step up to the plate and have to begin addressing right away, starting with having an absolute zero policy towards any kinds of reprisal killings against those who were allied with Gbagbo.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch, Africa Division, and Gnaka Lagoke, Ivory Coast political analyst running the website AfricanDiplomacy.com in Washington, D.C.