Chaos in the Ivory Coast: 5 key questions

A bloody standoff between forces loyal to ousted President Laurent Gbagbo and U.N.-backed Alassane Ouattara stoke fears of civil war in the west African country

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's president-elect Alassane Ouattara rest on Saturday, before battling forces aligned with former president Laurent Gbagbo.
(Image credit: Corbis)

The Ivory Coast may descend into civil war once again, as former President Laurent Gbagbo refuses to surrender to the U.N.-backed forces of Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo, the dictatorial leader of the country for the past 11 years, lost a democratic election to Ouattara in November, but refused to cede power. Fighting has escalated ever since, culminating in airstrikes earlier this week by U.N. and French forces on Gbagbo's bases and arms stockpiles. Soldiers loyal to Ouattara are laying siege to the capital city of Abidjan in a final effort to oust Gbagbo. Here, the five key questions about the standoff:

1. Is this another episode of the "Arab spring"?

No. The dispute between Gbagbo and Ouattara stretches back to November, months before the Tunisian protests sparked revolutions in the Middle East. And, in general terms, the country has been divided since the civil war that raged throughout the last decade. Ouattara is aligned with the northern, predominantly Muslim, part of the country, which is still controlled by rebel forces. Gbagbo, on the other hand, is aligned with the Christian conservative southern half of the country.

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2. How has Gbagbo clung to power for so long?

The former president is protected by his loyal Republican Guard, and a youth militia made up of nationalists and Liberian mercenaries. Until recently, Gbagbo also had the backing of various African countries — chiefly, Angola and Zimbabwe — who sent him both arms and men. Gbagbo's remaining allies backed away, though, after his forces gunned down seven peaceful protesters during a rally in March. On Tuesday, his last remaining ally, Angola, called for his immediate resignation. His surrender, or capture, is expected soon.

3. Is Ouattara any different?

It looks that way. A Muslim and a former International Monetary Fund economist, Ouattara has the potential to bring the rebel-held north under unified control. But "settling scores go both ways," says Evelyn Leopold at The Huffington Post. Militia loyal to Ouattara have been "blamed for atrocities," including the massacre of 800 pro-Gbagbo civilians in the western town of Duékoué last month. The new president will have to tread carefully, adds Adekeye Adebajo at The Guardian, and act as a "gracious statesman in healing national divisions." Otherwise, further violence is inevitable.

4. What is the human toll of the crisis?

Quite severe. The country is again on the brink of civil war, with widespread reports of rapes, killings and torture. Hundreds of thousands of Ivorians have crossed the border into Liberia, and others are fleeing to Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso. The U.N. says about 1,300 Ivorians have lost their lives since November. The capital city of Abidjan has been ransacked by looters, leaving food, medical supplies, and water in short supply.

5. Why is France involved?

The Ivory Coast was a colony of France until 1960, and many French citizens still call it home. France retained around 300 troops in the country following the civil war that ended in 2007, and sent hundreds more earlier this week to help attack the presidential palace where Gbagbo is holed up. France's action in the Ivory Coast, and in Libya, may represent a "new muscularity in using power by the politically embattled French president Nicolas Sarkozy," says Steven Erlanger in The New York Times. Some feel that Sarkozy, an unpopular leader who faces a tough re-election battle next year, is "acting tough to stir up patriotism."

Sources: The Guardian (2,3), The Economist, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, CIA Factbook

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