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Apr 11, 2011 | Commentary

After months of stalemate, Côte d’Ivoire is set for a denouement. There are now only two immediate questions: whether Laurent Gbagbo holds on for a few more days or is forced out in a few hours; and whether the embattled president comes out of his palace alive.

By now, the story is well worn. Run-off elections in November 2010 showed a clear defeat for incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo. The result was certified by the electoral commission and by the United Nations, specifically mandated by the Security Council to certify the poll. Gbagbo accused his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, of electoral fraud in the country’s north and west, and had his allies in the constitutional council annul enough votes to give Gbagbo an official victory. Despite international protest, Gbagbo refused to go, and for a time his intransigence overcame the collective desire of many Ivorians, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union.

Yet week by week, Ouattara was able to chip away at Gbagbo’s position. An international blockade of Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa trade, its most lucrative cash commodity, cut off new funds to Gbagbo’s treasury. Control of the central bank was handed over to Ouattara. Côte d’Ivoire was suspended from the African Union and ECOWAS.

But most unfortunately for Ivorians, the country has been in almost the same situation before. In October 2000, it was academic and history professor Gbagbo at the head of a popular revolt to replace a military dictator who refused to cede power. A decade and a civil war later, it is Alassane Ouattara, a former senior economist at the International Monetary Fund, who is held up as Côte d’Ivoire’s saviour.

Whenever Gbagbo’s end may come, Ouattara will face from the start a most unenviable presidency. The immediate priority will be to restore stability and restart the stalled economy. Ouattara will preside over a severely divided country, riven by the tension of recent months and yet to overcome the mistrust of the civil war. Though discredited, Gbagbo retains a loyal constituency, with almost half of Ivorians voting for him in November. If Ouattara is to build the confidence of all Ivorians in his administration, extraordinary effort will be required. His task is only made harder by the reports emerging from the western city of Duékoué suggesting his allied militias are principally responsible for a massacre that has left at least a thousand civilians dead.

Breaking the cycle of violence will require much more than Gbagbo’s departure. The de facto north-south division of the country (the north pro-Ouattara, the south pro-Gbagbo) will not disappear overnight. Confidence in the state will be at an all-time low. And the structural dangers of the state’s security apparatus must be addressed. As analyst Raphaël Outtara observed three years ago, “One substantial issue however, which largely pre-dates the rebellion, is the need to restructure the security forces to make them real forces serving the republic. Nevertheless, one may wonder whether it is in the interest of the current authorities to do this, given their lack of legitimacy…

Another daunting challenge is to reconcile the security forces with the civilian populations that they have a duty to protect. It is essential to restore confidence between the two sides and this requires respect for the rule of law and equality of all before its authority. Impunity must be stamped out and military tribunals must play their role fully and in an exemplary fashion, in the light of the violations of the duty and ethics of the profession of arms.”

The deficiencies of past DDR and SSR efforts (see graphic), and unsuccessful attempts to remove the military and militias from politics will threaten the success of any future civilian Ivorian administration.  If Ouattara genuinely wants to bring reform to Côte d’Ivoire, it will be necessary for him to take on a serious and methodological approach to SSR, despite past failings.  A divided country makes this task much more difficult but equally, much more vital.