Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is lurching perilously close to civil war.  Extended gun battles in Abidjan on Saturday and Sunday capped off a week in which there has been violence spread across the West African nation. Rebel forces now claim to control significant regions of the country.

Yesterday marked three months since a contested election sent Cote d’Ivoire into its current crisis. From that time the power has been claimed by two rival presidents. On one side are forces loyal to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo — crucially including the army and police. Pitted against them are supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who independent observers uniformly agree won the November 28 poll.

With the tense stalemate now clearly turning to wide-ranging violence, observers hold serious fears for Cote d’Ivoire. On Friday Ban Ki Moon addressed the Security Council on the situation, noting that troops loyal to Gbagbo had “continued to attack civilians and violate human rights”. The Secretary-General warned that for Cote d’Ivoire “time was slipping away”.

In apparent response to Moon’s statement the Ivorian Minister for Youth under Gbagbo yesterday called upon a rally of thousands of “young patriots” to “organise themselves into groups” in order to restrict movement of UN peacekeepers who protect Ouattara. His message was clear as he told the crowd, “Today, it is not the rebels who wage war on us it is the UNOCI”. Later the same day three UN peacekeepers were injured in an apparent ambush.

Fuelling this recent escalation of the crisis has been the almost complete breakdown of Cote d’Ivoire’s financial system. ATMs ran out of cash long ago. Now cashiers and Western Union have dried up as well. With people apparently stockpiling currency for fear of worse trouble ahead there is a serious shortage of hard currency available.

Cote d’Ivoire is West Africa’s second largest economy, but its money is printed in Senegal. When Gbagbo failed to concede power the cash supply was cut off. Meanwhile, inflation is soaring. Despite the shortage of currency on the streets, even more dramatic shortages of basic household items have resulted in spiralling prices.

All of which may prove to be very bad news for Gbagbo. The army — so far loyal to the incumbent — is paid monthly, by cheque. In the current situation those cheques are essentially worthless. Even partial payment by cash is unlikely to be an option. The total monthly government wage bill is about $160 million. With international economic sanctions in place — most notably targeting Cote d’Ivoire’s crucial cocoa industry — the government is reaching an untenable financial position.

So far the response to the cash crisis has been typically thuggish. Gbagbo’s forces have apparently “nationalised” many banks, with troops requisitioning whatever cash was left. Even the long closed stock exchange was reportedly raided.

Whether or not Cote d’Ivoire descends to outright civil conflict, the steady stream of refugees is already becoming a humanitarian crisis.

The UNHCR is reporting that since the violence this week numbers fleeing into neighbouring Liberia have spiked from 100 a day to more than 5000. Internally displaced people are thought to be far higher. Just on Friday an estimated 20,000-30,000 people fled one suburb of Abidjan that has experienced particularly heavy fighting.

And as the prospect of all-out civil war increases, so does the case for an unprecedented military intervention from foreign powers. ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States — has previously issued a communiqué signed by all 15 member nations agreeing to military intervention if other steps fail to force Gbagbo to stand down. Day by day this is emerging as a serious option.

Peter Fray

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