Ivory Coast's Bloody Presidential Standoff

Gallery: Civil War in the Ivory Coast Michael Zumstein / Agence Vu for Newsweek

While the worldHAS been consumed with NATO's ongoing airstrikes in Libya and the merciless earthquakes in Japan, fierce fighting has paralyzed the West African country of Ivory Coast. The standoff in the financial capital, Abidjan—pitting troops loyal to the embattled incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, against forces allied with his challenger, Alassane Ouattara—marks what may be the final fight in a three-month string of battles across much of the country that has left some 1,500 people dead. More than 800 people were killed in Duékoué alone after that town fell to pro-Ouattara forces.

This nightmarish saga began with the contested November presidential election. After a charged but mostly peaceful campaign packed with memorable, impressive televised debates, the country's Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner. Gbagbo's party contested the results before the Constitutional Court, which has final authority, alleging massive fraud in northern provinces controlled by pro-Ouattara rebels. After deliberation, the Constitutional Council reversed the decision and declared Gbagbo victorious. Meanwhile, the United Nations, which had helped organize and monitor the elections, sided with the Electoral Commission and confirmed that Ouattara had won. Gbagbo rejected the verdict, swore an oath of office, and granted himself another five-year term.

Civil War: Reliving History

The Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, and Western powers refused to play along. They recognized Ouattara as the president-elect and called for Gbagbo to step down. Gbagbo rebuffed their efforts, declaring, "I will work with all the countries of the world, but I will never give up our sovereignty." With the support of the African Union, the West stepped up the pressure, refusing to recognize Gbagbo's ambassadors and freezing his assets abroad. Via radio and television stations as well as armed supporters, the Gbagbo and Ouattara camps rattled one another for months, each claiming legitimacy over the other. The body count mounted.

Then France, the former colonial power, brought in the big guns. Ostensibly to protect its 12,000 nationals based in the country, the French military, acting under a U.N. mandate, seized Abidjan's international airport and took control of Ivory Coast's airspace. With U.N. peacekeepers, it shelled the national television station, military positions, and the presidential palace. Gbagbo retreated into a bunker; his loyalists capitulated. The president asked for a ceasefire. As NEWSWEEK went to press, Gbagbo still claimed to be the legitimate president. Abidjan remained tense and faced the possible grip of starvation.

Should he eventually go, however, Gbagbo's departure will not heal the cancer of divisive nationalism and ethnic politics that has crippled Ivory Coast since 1993. In fact, if Ouattara prevails, it could quickly prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Whether Ouattara legitimately won the election will hardly matter much to the millions of Ivorians who voted for his opponent. They now view Ouattara as the candidate of the West. The foreign military intervention will keep him from claiming the mantle of a democrat. Instead, he will be viewed as the contender who lost faith in the democratic process and shelled his way into the presidential mansion. His ascent to the presidency will be perceived more as a coup d'état than a genuine victory at the ballot box.

Africa is replete with grassroots opposition leaders who have been denied victory at the polls by defiant incumbents. Just look at Kenya and Zimbabwe. Beyond the customary disapproving communiqués, however, neither has been subjected to such a heavy-handed intervention by the West. Electoral affronts notwithstanding, neither Kenya's Raila Odinga nor Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai has resorted to armed rebellion. Sticking to the democratic process, they continue to fight their rivals—the intransigent incumbents—in court, at the polls, one vote at a time, and with power-sharing arrangements.

In contrast, the aggrieved parties on both sides of the showdown in Ivory Coast invested minimal efforts in a vote recount or a power-sharing agreement as steps to a lasting, acceptable solution. Ouattara and his Western backers were instead eager to brandish their military arsenals. But the use of undemocratic means to forcefully install the presumed winner of a contentious election is in itself a paradox. Not to mention that history has repeatedly demonstrated that seizing power through military might rarely leads to democracy.

It wasn't all that long ago that, like Ouattara today, Gbagbo himself was in the opposition. A French-trained historian and former university professor, he emerged on the political scene in the 1970s as a member of the opposition to the late President Félix Houphouët-Boigny's iron-fisted one-party regime. When he took office in 2000, Ivorians expected the new president to open up the process and quickly build a government of national unity. To their dismay, Gbagbo proceeded as if he had won a full mandate. He appointed representatives of small parties into his government but kept major political figures out of the administration. Just two years later, a rebellion broke out. Rebels demanded that Gbagbo resign and new elections be held. He refused. The ensuing war divided the country in two.

Today it is the world community that demands Gbagbo's departure. In his place it backs Ouattara, an economist who built a stellar career at the International Monetary Fund and the West African central bank. Ironically, if he should be installed as president, Ouattara may be beholden to his international backers at the expense of his fellow Ivorians. Once in office, he will have to pay France back for its military and political support. The loyalists who fought on his side will surely take the reins of state institutions. In the end, these entanglements could relegate the everyday people of Ivory Coast to the bottom of his priorities. At this juncture, Ivorians need a healer as much as the country needs visionary leadership. What's unfolding now guarantees neither.

Dizolele, a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the author of the forthcoming Mobutu: The Rise and Fall of the Leopard King.