By Julia Berman (Monday, Apr 4, 2011)
In December 2010, Côte d’Ivoire’s long-overdue elections resulted in violence as the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to cede power to his long-time political opponent, Alassane Ouattara. In the months since the election, Gbagbo has clung to power even as Ouattara, recognized by the African Union, European Union, United States, and United Nations as the rightfully-elected president, has attempted to take control. With both men arming militias and battling for control over the country’s resources, Côte d’Ivoire has devolved into a civil war with hundreds dead. The UN estimates 500 Ivoirians have been killed since the election, while Ouattara argues the figure is twice as high. Bloodshed the weekend of April 2nd may have killed over a thousand more. Gbagbo, a former academic whose presidential term ended in 2005, views the pronouncements of the international community – and particularly of France, the former colonial power – as imperialist efforts to undermine African sovereignty. Gbagbo has largely enjoyed the loyalty of the military and Ivoirian elite, who backed him even as the international community attempts to drive him from power with ever-tougher sanctions. The media’s recent focus on uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East appear to have emboldened Gbabgo, whose increasingly violent tactics may amount to crimes against humanity.
In the past week, opposition fighters have taken the capital of Yamoussoukro and up to 80% of the country, though a fierce battle rages on in Gbagbo’s stronghold of Abidjan, the country’s largest city. Next door in Liberia, USAID is feeling the pressure as thousands of Ivoirians stream across the border in an attempt to flee the fighting that has engulfed the capital of Abidjan, as well as much of Western Côte d’Ivoire. Looting, rapes, and killings have occurred in the border region, and the UN estimates 46,000 refugees have fled into Liberia in the last month alone. Liberia was initially hesitant to create refugee camps, leading groups like USAID and Oxfam to house refugees with local families. A camp in Bahn has now been opened, as it became clear the initial response was insufficient. However, many refugees have been unable to make the six-hour journey on poor roads required to reach the camp. Conditions for refugees crossing the border are extremely harsh: there is a notable lack of food and water, as well as poor sanitation and inadequate shelter. This weekend, Oxfam warned that many Ivoirian refugees are living in remote jungle areas on the Liberia-Côte d’Ivoire border. When the rainy season begins, aid groups will be unable to reach the estimated 100,000 people already in danger along the border.
The US government has provided almost $29 million in assistance for refugees, internally displaced persons, and Liberian communities affected by the violence in Côte d’Ivoire. Over the weekend, the BBC reported that health workers were unable to leave hospitals in Abidjan, which were quickly running out of resources. With grocery stories and pharmacies closed, hospitals – where more civilians than combatants are admitted– are in a dire situation. The WHO voiced concerns in February about the health infrastructure in Côte d’Ivoire, saying the post-election violence had exacerbated recent epidemics, including yellow fever and cholera. Refugee migration may serve to spread these diseases into Liberia. In Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring Liberia, a desperate humanitarian crisis shows no signs of an amicable or swift end.