On 22 February, Africa Renewal's Michael Fleshman sat down in Abidjan with Choi Young-jin, the head of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), for an exclusive interview about the country's continuing political deadlock and deteriorating security situation. Since civil war erupted in 2002, Côte d’Ivoire has been effectively partitioned between the north, controlled by forces loyal to the internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara, and the south, controlled by the former president, Laurent Gbagbo. The country was plunged into renewed crisis after Mr. Gbagbo rejected his defeat by Mr. Ouattara in last year's presidential election. On the day we spoke with Mr. Choi, a high-level African Union (AU) mediation panel was holding talks with the opposing presidents, and bloody clashes between Ouattara supporters and security forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo were occurring only a few kilometers from UNOCI headquarters.
What are the prospects for a breakthrough by this latest AU mediation panel?
Everybody knows that finding a solution will be difficult because there is hardly any common ground between the two protagonists. President Gbagbo wants power sharing. That is no secret. President Ouattara is ready to talk to the other party as soon as they accept the result of the election. So there is no overlapping ground on which you can build your mediation. That is the reason why the previous seven emissaries from ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] and the [AU] did not produce something tangible. I hope they can find the common ground for a tangible solution.
Are you encouraged by what you’ve seen and heard after the first round of mediation?
I think it is quite discouraging we have this violence — over 19 dead, 65 seriously wounded — this time with the use of heavy weapons like RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] fired directly at civilians [by pro-Gbagbo forces] to disperse them. RPGs should not be used. Of course we do not accept the use of live bullets. But RPGs are serious weapons. So this must stop. This is not a good sign to send to the AU panel presidents who are visiting Côte d’Ivoire.
Secondly, it was good they finally saw both [sides]. I wish all the best to the AU panel. But there are some difficulties already for the lack of ECOWAS participation [ECOWAS has threatened military action to remove Mr. Gbagbo from office.]
Isn’t the use of heavy weaponry a significant escalation?
Yes, we haven’t seen this before. The firing of RPGs into crowds of civilians to put down their [anti-Gbagbo] protests, it was the first time. So this is a serious escalation of the violence. We issued a press statement in the name of UNOCI condemning unequivocally the use of heavy weapons and the violence.
Why hasn’t the UN been able to better protect civilians in Abobo here in Abidjan and other areas affected by violence?
There are some ambiguities and misunderstandings regarding our civilian protection mandate. If you read carefully the Security Council resolution, [Resolution 1528, establishing UNOCI’s mandate] it says we have a mandate to protect civilians without prejudice to the first responsibility of the Ivorian government and military authorities. It’s a huge country with 20 million people and more than 70,000 military forces. They are responsible, ultimately, for the protection of civilians. That’s what they asked us to accept when they signed the Ouagadougou political agreement [that resulted in the 2010 election].
Our monitoring patrols have two purposes. One is to check out who is responsible for abuses and make them accountable. This is a very important element of civilian protection but neglected somehow by many people. [The Ivorian parties] asked that they be responsible for the protection of civilians in this country. This is not like a failed state. They have well paid, regularly trained and controlled military forces…. We will soon be publishing a report of human rights abuses during the past two or three months.
The second element is our direct protection. When we had a serious problem like in Abobo in mid-January, there was imminent danger of clashes between pro-Ouattara civilians and pro-Gbagbo security forces…. The previous night, 10 pro-Gbagbo policemen got killed by pro-Ouattara armed civilians. So they decided to avenge their deaths.
We had information that security forces were massing in the Abobo area. We had to intervene to protect civilians from possible massacre. All night we were there. I myself went with reinforcements at 1 o’clock in the morning to interpose between the two forces. I think our strong presence on that particular night prevented a possible civilian massacre.
Is the international community prepared for the humanitarian consequences of a return to full-scale civil war? I did not see that capacity in place when I visited camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the western part of the country.
The answer is we have to do our best. The situation is not yet beyond control because of two elements: one is the military forces are not yet involved — the FDS [Defence and Security Forces, loyal to Mr. Gbagbo] in the south and [Ouattara’s] Forces Nouvelles in the north. They’re using proxies. If there is a direct confrontation between FDS and Forces Nouvelles, it will be out of control. A civil war. We are doing our best to keep at bay those two military forces. So far we have been successful.
The other element is there is a sort of balance between the two forces. That explains the relatively few number of deaths and the relatively low magnitude of fighting between the two groups. The IDPs and refugees are from both sides. Usually in Africa it is a one-sided phenomenon. One military force is chasing away and intimidating one ethnic group.
But success on the humanitarian side depends on solving the central political problem.
Absolutely! That is why Abidjan will decide everything. Abidjan is the center of political and economic life in Côte d'Ivoire.
Are the international financial sanctions proving effective as a form of pressure on Mr. Gbagbo?
The conventional wisdom is that neither the economic sanctions nor the financial sanctions have been that effective in history. But you do have a unique situation here. This country does not have its own national currency. [It] uses the regional currency, the CFA franc. [It] does not have its own central bank. It uses the regional central bank BCEAO, which is in Dakar. So it will be very intriguing and important to watch carefully what will be the effect of the financial sanctions. The decision made by the BCEAO will have a huge effect on the evolution of the situation towards a solution.
Many supporters of Mr. Gbagbo accuse the UN of interfering in Côte d’Ivoire’s internal affairs and being biased towards Mr. Ouattara.
There is some confusion about the fundamental position of UNOCI towards Côte d’Ivoire and the two camps. I’d like to illustrate a couple of points. First, no matter what happens — on the financial and military fronts — we will be fulfilling three aspects of our fundamental mandate. The first one is protection of civilians. We are sending out patrols day and night into dangerous areas.
The second element is protection of the Golf Hotel [the Abidjan hotel where Mr. Ouattara has set up headquarters].If there is no protection of the Golf Hotel then President Ouattara’s team will be forced to go probably to Bouake [the de facto capitol of the north]. That means division of the country and probably recurrence of the civil war. So that is the importance of the protection of the Golf Hotel.
The third element is certification of the election. There are people out there who still are not very clear about the election. We certified the election of Côte d’Ivoire in no uncertain terms. If they have any doubt about the certification, what better authority or institution can they trust? We don’t think recounting [as proposed by some African leaders] makes any sense because what entity will do the recounting? And what entity will have more neutrality, more impartiality than the United Nations? I appeal to them to have confidence in the United Nations. That will be the starting point. The truth.
How do you see the way forward?
I’d like to copy the now famous method of the South African truth and reconciliation [commission]. There is the truth about the elections. If you accept, reconciliation is possible… If you don’t accept the truth there will violence. So I think the way forward is accepting the truth.
—Africa Renewal online