Why ECOWAS could not restore peace in Cote d’Ivoire after the 2001 rebellion


West African leaders deployed an unprecedented diplomatic mechanism to save Côte d’Ivoire from self-destruction, after a mutiny rocked that country on September 19, 2002, killing 400 people in just one day. But the massive diplomatic effort yielded a meager result until France—the former colonial master—stepped in, four months later, to broker peace between the warring factions. Why could African leaders not resolve the crisis on their own in the framework of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)?  

Never before had African leaders reacted so swiftly to save a nation from self-destruction as they didover several months to bring normalcy to Côte d’Ivoire, a West African nation that was rocked on September 19, 2002 by a mutiny that claimed 400 lives and hundreds of wounded that day alone.

The seemingly well-organized, disciplined and well-armed rebels protested the dismissal of 750 among them, and the planned dismissal of more. Three weeks after the rebellion broke out, the rebels took everyone by surprise with the emergence of their political party, the Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI) which, soon thereafter, demanded that the country’s president, Laurent Gbagbo, step down. Owing to the economic significance of Côte d’Ivoire, which masters 40% of GDP in the eight-nation West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), and has a population of 15 million—of which 26% are nationals of other countries in the region—African leaders set in motion an impressive diplomatic machine that left almost no stone unturned to stop the mutiny from turning into a carnage.

The first of these efforts was the special summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held on September 29 in Accra, Ghana. Besides the attendance of the overwhelming majority of heads of states in the West African region, one also noted the presence of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, then chairman of the newly established African Union. This demonstrates the continental significance of the crisis. Indeed, only a few days after the crisis broke out, Abidjan was the theater of a massive diplomatic and military activity marked, notably, by the presence of three Nigerian war planes apparently ready to intervene to help crush the mutiny. The special ECOWAS summit was, in fact, the second such meeting planned, after an aborted meeting convened in Morocco to address the crisis.

The leaders of ECOWAS unequivocally condemned the mutiny and set up a high-level “contact group” comprising the heads of state of Togo, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, responsible for negotiating a general framework to resolve the crisis.

Forty-eight hours after the summit, the countries comprising the contact group (headed by President Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo) dispatched their foreign ministers and their defense ministers to Abidjan, after their intelligence and military experts had been sent there. On October 1, these mediators started drafting the text to be signed by the government and the rebels, calling for an immediate ceasefire. The signing ceremony, scheduled for October 6, did not take place, because President Laurent Gbagbo changed his mind at the last minute, and demanded that the rebels first put down their weapons before a ceasefire is signed. In an apparent move to trap the rebels—a move rebel spokesperson Tuo Fozié found to be in line with “Gbagbo’s history of fooling everyone he deals with”—the government dispatched a Lt.-colonel—not the defense minister as planned—to sign the cease-fire agreement with the rebels without giving the signatory the written mandate required by the mediation team. The Lt.-colonel, who was sent back to Abidjan to obtain the said document, never came back.

The ECOWAS mediation team was very disappointed and talked of Gbagbo’s lack of sincerity. Feeling that they had been fooled by the Ivorian president, they turned down his invitation for dinner, and left the country a few days later.

On the military front, the rebels continued to gain ground in the northern and central regions of the country. Their advance towards the south, which necessarily passes through Yamoussoukro, the capital, was hampered by the French army’s units positioned near Yamoussoukro, officially to protect French and other third-country nationals. Though relations between Gbagbo and his French counterpart were rather cold—the latter felt that the former was “too volatile”—the French government felt the obligation to protect its business interests in the West African country, and its close to 20,000 nationals that live there. But Chirac did not want to do more.

A few days later, after the government forces’ failure to take back Bouaké, the country’s second largest city—which the rebels conquered the first day of the mutiny—President Gbagbo went on national television to explain why he demanded that the rebels first put down their weapons, while—surprisingly—stating his willingness to negotiate with them if they did so: “I cannot enter into a negotiation with the assailants before they have laid down their weapons. To enter into a negotiation with the assailants to ask them to put down their weapons is tantamount to recognizing them, to legitimizing them. That also amounts to legitimizing the occupation of Côte d’Ivoire’s cities. I cannot accept that.”

The rebels, who had warned the mediators and the public about the president’s “propensity for fooling people,” rejected Gbagbo’s demand, and called for his resignation.

So, the first West African diplomatic initiative to end the crisis proved unproductive. But the region’s leaders would not give up. President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, currently chairman of ECOWAS, instructed his foreign minister, Cheick Tidiane Gadio, to carry out another diplomatic initiative. Wade, whose country is faced with a secession movement that has dragged on for over two decades, and who won the presidency two years ago after two failed attempts, told the press: “If things were to happen on first trial, I would not be here today. Of course, we are prepared to face the difficulties. I still have hope that we will reach a negotiated settlement, instead of letting fire power determine the outcome.” The Senegalese leader added: “I myself have been engaged in a dialogue since I have been here. I have been dialoguing with the MFDC, who are armed. Therefore, we advise [Gbagbo] to talk to the rebels.”

Other African leaders advised the Ivorian head of state to soften his position. These include President Gnassingbé Eyadema of Togo who repeatedly said that “one knows when such crises start, but no one can predict when they will end.” The U.S. government, which renewed its support to Gbagbo, recommended a negotiated solution, too. Even the French government, which is bound with Côte d’Ivoire by a 1961 pact that provides for French military intervention in case of an attack on Côte d’Ivoire by another country, called for negotiation with the rebels. French foreign affairs minister, Dominique de Villepin, in an interview broadcast on Africa Number 1—a powerful Gabon-based radio station that is picked up on the FM dial in most of Africa—on October 8 said: “There are no military solutions to the difficulties that Côte d’Ivoire faces. The difficulties have piled up over the years. They are economic, political and social in nature. They require dialogue, dialogue for political reconciliation, dialogue to deal with the economic difficulties.” The French official concluded: “It is important that Laurent Gbagbo sign that [ceasefire] accord, for we must exit this crisis through dialogue, through reconciliation.”

The rebels, who once again on October 16 called for the president’s resignation, unveiled their plans to set up an 8-month transition government in case of military victory, a government that, they say, would lead to national reconciliation and better relations with foreigners living in Côte d’Ivoire, and with Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbors. These are, indeed, some of the areas where the Gbagbo administration does not have the best of records.

In an October 17 television address which came after the rebels had finally signed the ceasefire agreement, though they vowed not to lay down their weapons—and after the president had scored his first military victory by taking back the important city of Daloa from the rebels’ control—Gbagbo made a huge, first step in the direction of peace by agreeing to the ceasefire.

The peace negotiations brokered in Lome by President Eyadema between delegates of the Ivorian government and the rebels proved crucial. In the first set of agreements signed on October 31, both parties agreed to refrain from extra-judiciary executions, the recruitment of mercenaries, the enrollment of children in the armed forces, and the violation of the cease-fire agreement. In the second set of agreements signed on November 1, the government committed itself to initiating legislation aimed at pardoning and freeing imprisoned soldiers and civilians sued for attacks on national security. The government also agreed to take appropriate measures to facilitate the return of soldiers in exile and their re-integration in the armed forces. The authorities in Abidjan also pledged to request the adoption without delay of pending legislation intended to improve the work and living conditions of the military, their recruitment and promotion.

As we are preparing to go to press, the delegates to the negotiations are debating the so-called “political aspects” of the crisis, that is the rebels’ demand that President Laurent Gbagbo step down, an amendment to the Constitution (to remove the restrictions barring one of the leading presidential hopefuls from running), and the organization of new presidential elections. Time and time again, the Gbagbo government has called these demands unconstitutional and has demanded, in turn, that the rebels put down their weapons before negotiating with them. The hardest part begins.