04/06/2011 09:12 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

Ivory Coast: Will a Change of Leadership Stop Civil War?

With the battle for control of the Ivory Coast nearing an end, explosive divisions remain unresolved and revenge killings are expected after months of unthinkable horror.

"What we are seeing is virtually a civil war," said Colombian Ambassador Nestor Osorio, this month's UN Security Council president.

At the time of this writing, UN and French officials are discussing the surrender and possible exit from the country, formally called Côte d'Ivoire, of Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian and a former history professor, who ruled for 10 years.

His opponent, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim and a former International Monetary Fund economist, won a UN-certified runoff election on November 28 by 54 percent in the West African nation, the world's largest exporter of the cocoa bean. But Gbagbo insists the results were rigged and began fighting.

France's foreign minister, Alain Juppe said that Gbagbo had to sign a letter recognizing Ouattara won the election and that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "agrees with me on that." Gbagbo has not done that yet, although the United Nations said three generals had given orders to stop fighting.

But the vacuum could spur trigger-happy militia to continue murderous shooting of civilians.

Once the economic powerhouse of West Africa, the cocoa plantations attracted workers from Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali and many other nations, with some having married into Ivorian families. One divisive debate is -- who is an Ivorian? Over the last 10 years, the lifestyles of thousands deteriorated in the country of 21 million people.

At the same time, United Nations Security Council resolutions, whether on Libya or Ivory Coast, show a willingness protect civilians militarily, albeit with reluctance. (The 9,000 UN troops based in Abidjan, are from various countries and not a coherent military force. But peacekeepers have conducted offensives in Sierra Leone, the Congo and in Haiti.)

Helicopter gunships

France and the UN peacekeepers on Monday used helicopter gunships to target heavy weaponry near the presidential palace and residence in the main city of Abidjan, a dramatic development to force Gbagbo from power. There were no attacks on Tuesday.

The offensive more or less placed the peacekeepers on the Ouattara side, similar to the coalition in Libya. Rather than getting rid of a tyrant, they support those who want to get rid of one.

Secretary-General Ban has gone out of his way to say the UN was not a "party to the conflict" and took measures in self-defense and to protect civilians. Alain Le Roy, the UN peacekeeping chief, said 11 troops had been injured by Gbagbo forces and that heavy weapons, used continuously against civilians, were close to the presidential palace.

"There is no point to firing at the presidential palace if there are no heavy weapons," he told reporters after briefing the Security Council on Monday. He said all 15 Council members supported the action and "that is important."

Russia's Lavrov has doubts

Not so fast. In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday questioned whether the United Nations troops were abiding by a mandate that "requires them to be neutral and impartial."

Russia, backed in part by South Africa, has challenged the UN in the Ivory Coast since the election, refusing to adopt sanctions against Gbagbo despite prodding by US Ambassador Susan Rice when she held the rotating Council presidency in December. Better late than never, the Council adopted such a resolution last week.

France, the nation's former colonial ruler, has about 1,650 troops in Ivory Coast, known as the Licorne (Unicorn) force, mainly to evacuate some of the estimated 12,000 Frenchmen living there. Until this week, France has kept a relatively low profile, apprehensive of being accused of colonialism. But Gbagbo's end game came when Ouattara's forces captured key cities across the country after which France and the United Nations conducted their air strikes.

Murder, rape, torture

The human toll has been devastating. More than one million people have fled their home to escape fighting. Some 100,000 have escaped to Liberia, 3,000 to Ghana. Hospital care is scarce with international humanitarian groups, like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders, saying ambulances in Abidjan, the main city, are fired attacked.

No doubt most of the violence has been committed by those loyal to Gbagbo -- rapes, killings, torture, looting. Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch, an award-winning photojournalist who had worked for Reuters in 25 African countries, writes from Abidjan:

Some victims have been burned alive or beaten to death, while attackers have looted other victims' shops, destroyed their homes, and told them to leave their neighborhoods -- where many have lived for decades -- or be killed...As incendiary threats pour in from both sides, the country is on the brink of a full resumption of armed conflict. As in the past, civilians will almost certainly bear the brunt of the bloodshed.

But settling scores go both ways with troops and militia loyal to Ouattara blamed for atrocities also, raising fears of revenge killings well after the presidential race is settled.

In the western town of Duékoué, captured by pro-Ouattara forces, an estimated 800 people were massacred on March 30, prompting visits by senior UN officials. Ouattara denied his backers were responsible and welcomed a UN investigation. But while details are sketchy, most of the victims were from pro-Gbagbo neighborhoods.

Human Rights Watch, in a 13-page report on March 15, accused Gbagbo's military of organized violence. But it also documented 11 cases of summary executions in Abidjan by Ouattara's forces.

Root causes of war

The many issues that provoked a civil war a decade ago were never solved -- whether land reform, nationality or ethnic tensions, according to an analysis by Jendayi E. Frazer, a former US assistant secretary of State for African affairs, and Nicolas Berggruen, head of his own institute, which explores ideas of governance.

The crisis in Ivory Coast manifests a deep rift between the largely Muslim north and Christian south exacerbated by ethnic tensions -- a result of colonial borders drawn without regard for the integrity of African ethnic communities. Since Ivory Coast's borders cut across principal ethnic groups that have a significant presence in neighboring countries, every crisis is a regional crisis.

If, as is likely, Ouattara takes power, his biggest challenge will be reunifying a country still divided by the legacy of the 2002 civil war. That means tackling national identity and citizenship issues, reforming land tenure, and devolving power from the presidency to achieve more representative and inclusive governance.