Côte d’Ivoire: Where’s Europe?

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Tensions are still perilously high in Côte d’Ivoire over a week after both sitting President Laurent Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara both claimed victory in national elections. The US, UN, African Union and ECOWAS have sided with Mr Ouattara, but he is now holed up in a hotel in the capital Abidjan, threatened by Gbagbo’s loyalists.

Ouattara’s guards include some of the UN peacekeepers who have patrolled Côte d’Ivoire since 2004.  In New York, UN diplomats have engaged in frenetic talks on the crisis.  Not all had seen it coming: “We didn’t believe Gbagbo would permit elections until he was sure he was going to win them,” laughs one official.  Now the main question is whether the UN troops will stand and fight if Gbagbo’s goons decide to storm Ouattara’s hotel.

The crisis has been a rich seam of gossip. Why did Russia initially block a Security Council statement in support of Ouattara? Diplomats wonder whether Moscow has some commercial interest in Gbagbo’s rule. And is it true that Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president sent to mediate, promised Gbagbo millions of dollars if he conceded?

Amid all this chatter, something is missing. It is European power.  France – the former colonial power - has been active in diplomacy in New York.  But officials with long memories recall how the French used to behave in Côte d’Ivoire. In 2004, after Ivorian planes attacked French peacekeepers, France destroyed the country’s (small) airforce.

Today, there are still French troops in Côte d’Ivoire, but in smaller numbers than 2004.  There have been concerns that a tough line from Paris would lead to violence against French civilians, especially after the Gbagbo camp called Ouattara a French stooge. 

The EU had sent monitors to cover the polls, although their operations were marred by death threats. This week, the EU agreed targeted sanctions against Gbagbo’s henchmen and called on him to step down - but the AU, ECOWAS and US are leading on the crisis.

The very fact that Thabo Mbeki is the main mediator is a sign of the times. France has traditionally resisted South African influence in West Africa. Jacques Chirac once told Mr Mbeki that he needed to “understand the soul of West Africa”.  “I would really like President Mbeki to immerse himself in West Africa so as to understand the mentality and the soul of West Africa,” the then President of the Republic noted, “because in times of crisis, you have to really know people's mentalities and what is in people's souls.”

Mbeki probably thought of those words as he flew into Côte d’Ivoire this month.  He may have mused on how France – like Europe more generally – has lost influence in Africa.

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