His forces battered by French airstrikes, Ivory Coast’s President Laurent Gbagbo finally gave up a five-month battle to retain power and began negotiating his departure from the country this week. Gbagbo lost his re-election bid last November to his longtime political enemy, Alassane Ouattara, but refused to recognize the results of the vote, and forces loyal to the two men clashed sporadically for months. Last week, those skirmishes turned into a war, as Ouattara’s troops surrounded the capital and tens of thousands of people fled. After France—Ivory Coast’s former colonizer, which still has troops stationed there—destroyed Gbagbo’s heavy weaponry, the army deserted en masse. Hunkered down in the presidential palace, Gbagbo said he would step down, but negotiations were stalled over his unwillingness to allow Ouattara to succeed him.
The two men have been enemies for years, said Roger Kaplan in The American Spectator. Gbagbo, a Christian, is supported by the largely Christian south, while Ouattara, a Muslim, has his base in the mostly Muslim north and among the descendents of immigrants from Burkina Faso. Those two sides fought a vicious civil war a decade ago, and the underlying issues, particularly surrounding whether ethnic Burkinabes can claim citizenship, were never resolved. At this point, even if Gbagbo steps down, there is still a danger of an “all-out tribal war” that could “draw in all kinds of scavengers and bandits from across the region and spread across all of West Africa.”
The human toll has already been “devastating,” said Evelyn Leopold in HuffingtonPost.com. More than 1 million people have fled their homes, many of them crossing the border to Liberia. Gbagbo’s forces and supporters have committed untold numbers of “rapes, killings, torture, looting”—including burning people alive in Abidjan—while a massacre of 800 civilians in the western town of Duékoué is blamed on pro-Ouattara forces. This horror is “a visceral example of how one very stubborn man can ruin a nation,” said Elizabeth Dickinson in ForeignPolicy.com. Gbagbo’s refusal to give in despite sanctions caused the economy to shut down and the country to default on its debt. “If and when this political standoff ends, the Ivory Coast is going to be broken.”