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The Battle for Abidjan

Posted: 04/ 1/11 10:49 AM ET

After four months of torturous political deadlock, an endgame is in sight in Côte d'Ivoire. The internationally-recognized winner of the 2010 presidential elections, Alassane Ouattara, gave incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo every opportunity to bow out peacefully. He refused, and Ouattara and his allies correctly concluded that military force was the only option left.

The military offensive proceeded faster than anyone anticipated. From their stronghold in the north, the Republican Forces of Côte d'Ivoire fighting on behalf of Ouattara rolled. In a matter of a few days, they took key towns in the west, east, and center without major military combat or loss of life. Now they are poised to capture the big prize of Abidjan, the commercial and political heart of the country.

So far, so good. However, three key risks remain. First is a last-ditch killing spree by Gbagbo's loyalist forces, who are mounting a last stand and who may conclude they have no options left but extreme violence. Second is mass vengeance by pro-Ouattara supporters. Since the November 28 election, Gbagbo's security forces and militias have gunned down political activists, West African immigrants, and even unarmed women protestors. His militants have also reportedly burned people alive.

These victims and their families live side-by-side with the perpetrators of these crimes in the Abidjan suburbs of Adjamé, Koumassi, and Yopougon. Similar concerns apply to Western Côte d'Ivoire, also a site of recent violence and where the UN now fears serious human rights violations. More violence is highly possible in the next few days. Third is, having overthrown Gbagbo, the coalition of former rebels and army deserters that make up the Republican Forces might claim that the political kingdom is theirs.

Ouattara and the international community should be on guard against these scenarios. If mass atrocities are committed, rapid armed intervention should be an active option, as it was in Libya. The UN already has a large contingent in Abidjan, and the French maintain a military base there. They should remain focused on protecting civilians from further violence. If the insurgents maneuver to keep power, Ouattara and the international community must insist on his legitimate right to lead the nation. Unlike Egypt, Côte d'Ivoire held a democratic election that was certified by the United Nations. There is no need for an interim military government to prepare for elections. All that had been lacking was a concession speech by Gbagbo.

More likely is that Ouattara will assume the presidency in coming days. If he does, his regime will have a unique and critical opportunity to shape a new Côte d'Ivoire. First, President Ouattara must address the nation as a political leader of all Ivoirians. He should move to build a big-tent coalition that not only regroups his core supporters among Northerners and Muslims, but also that incorporates people of the center and west. His winning coalition was the product of a national political alliance; he should not only extend that but also appeal for the support of the 46% of the electorate that voted for Gbagbo. A victory for one side should not translate into disenfranchisement and abuse for another, as it has after military victory in places like Rwanda. That is hardly a recipe for a durable peace.

Second, Ouattara must make clear that his government will refrain from imposing collective punishment on Gbagbo's supporters. With the exception of individuals who have committed crimes, civil servants, professionals, and professionals within the military should not face harsh consequences for their complicity with the Gbagbo regime since his December 3 "constitutional coup." This is especially important for building a new army and government in which moderate members of Gbagbo's party should be included. Similarly, Ouattara must persuade the Republican Forces to avoid revenge killings; those who commit them should be punished.

Third, a former IMF official, Ouattara must draw on his economic skills to quickly rebuild the economy. The electoral crisis and the war that preceded it damaged the economic institutions of the country. But the infrastructure to reenergize Côte d'Ivoire's once dynamic economy remains. He should invite international firms back, and ensure that all armed forces must also refrain from destroying the social and economic infrastructure. Job creation, one of President Ouattara's post-conflict priorities, will offer even the so-called "Young Patriots" a viable alternative to joining militias and criminal gangs to make a living.

Fourth, an independent Commission of National Reconciliation should be formed to foster social cohesion. That Commission should establish a process for documenting the human rights abuses of the post-electoral crisis and the war that preceded it. Finally, Ouattara should look to the West African region and work with his neighbors to solidify a regional peace.

The presidential elections came very close to reuniting the country after two decades of divisive politics over citizenship and representation. Unfortunately, it took military force to impose the electoral result. But now Côte d'Ivoire has a unique opportunity to set the country on a different path, one that will be key for regional stability. Ouattara's first steps will be essential to charting a new way forward. The battle for Abidjan is as much about charting this future as it is about ousting Laurent Gbagbo from power.

Thomas Bassett is Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Scott Straus is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.