The arrest of former Côte d’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo on 11 April after a bloody weeklong battle in the heart of Abidjan has been greeted with jubilation by supporters of the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, and relief by the international community. In this exclusive interview in his New York office, the Ivorian ambassador to the UN Youssoufou Bamba affirmed his government’s intention to bring Mr. Gbagbo to court, criticized the international community for inaction and called for an urgent international response to the country’s humanitarian crisis. This interview was conducted a few days before the final battle.
The ambassador’s explanation for Mr. Gbagbo’s surprisingly rapid retreat to a bunker under the presidential palace under fire from President Ouattara’s military was short and direct: “His army has been defeated, his generals have surrendered and they are short of ammunition.” And the reason the government agreed to a brief lull in the fighting to allow for surrender talks was equally succinct: “We don’t want to see a slaughtering of people. They are Ivorians after all.”
But Mr. Bamba made it clear that, after killing hundreds of civilians and refusing many opportunities to leave office peacefully after Mr. Ouattara’s victory in the November 2010 presidential election, Mr. Gbagbo would be held to account. “He will be treated as a prisoner, because he has been given the opportunity to leave and to have some, if you will, dignity…. He has to take the full consequences of his stubbornness…. He has too much crime on his hands. He will definitely face the International Criminal Court.”
French role defended
The veteran diplomat, who has served as Côte d’Ivoire’s ambassador to Austria, the UK and the US at different times, dismissed charges of aggression by France, the former colonial power. Paris maintains a garrison in the commercial capital Abidjan and has substantial financial interests in the country. French and UN forces attacked Mr. Gbagbo’s heavy weapons during the battle for Abidjan in order to protect civilians — actions permitted by UN Security Council Resolution 1975 on Côte d’Ivoire. French armoured units were also involved in the fighting that led to Mr. Gbagbo’s arrest.
“I don’t want to play this hypocrisy stuff with the international media,” Mr. Bamba scoffed in reference to press reports that French forces fought alongside pro-Ouattara troops. “We have to be clear … the French have intervened under Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter and with consistent precision to Resolution 1975. That is what we should focus on and where the debate should be.”
Mass killings reported
Ambassador Bamba disputed reports of mass killings in the north and west of the country by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Catholic charity Caritas after those areas were taken by soldiers supporting Mr. Ouattara during the drive on Abidjan.
“Reports of mass killing leave us very suspicious because the news has been stated by Caritas. We know Caritas is very manipulated by Mr. Gbagbo. Everybody knows there is a notorious clergyman behind that.… He is profoundly anti-Ouattara.” If there were atrocities, he said, “The persons involved have nothing to do with the FRCI [Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire, the force fighting for Mr. Ouattara]. We are clear. We deny any involvement of the regular troops of the [FRCI] military.”
Ambassador Bamba conceded that reports of mass killings of civilians in the strategic town of Duékoué near the Liberian border had also come from the Red Cross and UN human rights officials and may have been committed by militias and other irregular forces allied with Mr. Ouattara, but outside official command. “If they have perpetrated some things we do not have to bear the responsibility of that.”
He did say that the government has dispatched a legal team to investigate the charges and report back within 15 days. “President Ouattara wants to conduct his office under the rule of law. We do not want to tolerate any abuses, any offences. The perpetrators, if found guilty, will be brought to justice.” The ambassador also promised full cooperation with international investigators, declaring, “We are open for international investigation. We want that.”
Reconciliation ‘a huge task’
The ambassador acknowledged that continuing regional and ethnic tensions between the predominantly Muslim and pro-Ouattara north and the largely Christian and pro-Gbagbo south are a major challenge. “We know the task is huge. Even with the fighting going on we have given clear instructions to our troops to protect civilians, to respect human rights and above all to treat humanely their brothers in arms [from Gbagbo’s forces]. We are the same people.”
In the short term, the ambassador continued, reconciliation “is sending messages of restraint and reason to our opponents to say, ‘You have lost, just go in peace. You will be treated humanely according to the international law….’ We have to, if you will, brainwash people in reverse because they have been brainwashed negatively. They have been manipulated by hate messages.”
“We have to spread the message of tolerance.… Everything should go through a court of law. Nobody is to take justice into their own hands…. That is very difficult because they have the feeling of revenge. They have suffered massacres, slaughtering and abuses from the Gbagbo camp,” the ambassador noted. “But we have spread the word for them to refrain from doing their vengeance.” He also confirmed that the Ouattara government would also establish a truth and reconciliation commission to promote forgiveness.
Inclusive and effective governance
“But above all,” Ambassador Bamba emphasized, “the government put in place will be an open government, an inclusive government with all political forces part of it, and with civil society…. Everyone should be getting on board because the reconstruction task is huge. For this reason we are prepared to welcome in government elements from different parties. So the people of Mr. Gbagbo who are free from abuses, violations of human rights and economic crimes will be welcome…. These elections have been a breakthrough. They have been very fair, free and inclusive elections. We cannot go backwards.”
Ambassador Bamba also said that his government would pursue a policy of social inclusion as well — a sensitive matter in a country where tensions between “indigenous” Ivorians and migrants, fanned by xenophobic propaganda from Gbagbo-controlled media, have made nationality an explosive issue. “You have to understand that Côte d’Ivoire has 21 million inhabitants, but I think a third are from neighbouring countries. So we have to move to citizenship rather than national origin, which is … something very racist.”
Land disputes, a source of violence among communities in the western part of the country, “should be addressed in light of reality today,” the ambassador explained. “Imagine the young Burkinabès who are there three or four generations. They were born in Côte d’Ivoire and have nothing to do with Burkina Faso, but they are from the Burkina Faso culture. When the father buys land and dies it is quite normal that his son would inherit the land, but [under current law] it is not possible because the kid is not Ivorian…. That’s not justice.”
Appeal for aid
Ambassador Bamba also appealed for greater humanitarian aid for the victims of the violence. Donor governments, he said, “have to rally as much as they did in supporting democracy and the will of the people of Côte d’Ivoire. The situation on the humanitarian front is very hard. People lack everything — water, sanitation, food, first aid. Displaced persons should return to their homes.… This should be addressed rapidly. That is why I take the opportunity of this interview to launch an appeal to the [international community] to come to Côte d’Ivoire and bring some relief to the suffering of the people.”
The UN estimates that as many as 1 million Ivorians have fled the fighting in Abidjan alone, joining hundreds of thousands of others as refugees in neighbouring Liberia and other countries or in makeshift camps for the internally displaced. The flood of civilians has overwhelmed existing relief efforts and UN officials report that emergency funding appeals have found few listeners in donor countries.
The ambassador, however, remained confident of continued international support. “There is no doubt they will respond. They will do it.” In the meantime, he said, “President Ouattara has launched an emergency plan of 45 billion CFA francs [about US$100 million] to address their basic needs — water, heath and basic infrastructure and sanitation — to prevent epidemics from spreading. We have done this, but we also need support from the international community in addressing this very urgent problem.”
International community ‘sort of’ complicit
The ambassador had one criticism of the international community, however. The scope of the suffering and destruction, he asserted, would have been lessened had the world acted sooner.
“It is unfortunate that the international community does not know Mr. Gbagbo. They were dealing with him as if he were a normal statesman…. But because the international community did not know Gbagbo, they have been sort of accomplices in these killings,” by trying so long to negotiate his departure.
Mr. Gbagbo’s removal “should have happened long before,” the ambassador concluded. “It would have saved many lives. Many people would have been living to celebrate the emergence of democracy in Côte d’Ivoire…. That is my message to the international community.”