There have been many comparisons made between the decision to intervene in Libya and the decision to intervene in Iraq. And there is certainly a lot this comparison can tell us — about politics, about morality, about humanity. Less has been said about the Libyan intervention in relation to contemporaneous events elsewhere. Why Libya and why not somewhere else?
While there are — as ever — several current conflicts globally, the situation that bears the strongest comparison with Libya is that in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).
This is a civil conflict where rebel forces have taken control of large swathes of the country. The rebels’ cause — if not their actions — comes with unquestionable moral authority. They are supporting the legitimate winner of a democratic election against an incumbent who refuses to stand down. President Laurent Gbagbo has held onto his position through brutal and calculated force. About 450,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. More than 500 are confirmed dead. Atrocities against civilians are widespread and well documented.
The similarities between Cote d’Ivoire and Libya are evident. For weeks there has been serious talk of foreign intervention of the sort now seen against Gaddafi’s forces. Rebel forces have repeatedly called for such international action. One rebel leader made the comparison with Libya explicit, “they have gone after Gaddafi, but we are still waiting”.
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Paradoxically, the closer the world came to reaching its decision to take action in Libya, the more remote such intervention in Cote d’Ivoire seemed to become. With the world’s attention now focused firmly on Libya — and on Japan — Cote d’Ivoire is even further off the agenda. There is simply not enough air for events in Cote d’Ivoire to breathe.
In Sunday’s Observer, former Guardian editor Peter Preston wrote a piece pondering how news coverage can weigh two stories of such enormous import as Libya and Japan. The question posed was “how do you choose between story A, in which a tsunami kills thousands and threatens a disastrous nuclear meltdown, and story B, in which a berserk Arab dictator, threatened by democratic revolution, sets his forces marching on a city where a million vulnerable people live?’ Against this one might well ask how you then choose story C, in which an ongoing political crisis in West Africa descends further into degradation and bloodshed leaving millions of already vulnerable people in a state of raw humanitarian crisis? As Preston says, “forget the natural balance of coverage: it doesn’t really exist”.
Fatigue is also a factor. The situation in Cote d’Ivoire has been dragging on since November. The tragedy is that it has reached its peak — one must continue to hope it has reached its peak — just as events elsewhere have captured media and diplomatic attention.
This may not be completely coincidence. Gbagbo clearly has a lot on plate at present but he will have been following world events closely. He is surely shrewd enough to know that with the UN and the AU focused elsewhere he has an unexpected chance to consolidate.
In a surprising irony it is the international isolation of Gaddafi that may just provide the biggest practical hurdle for intervention in Cote d’Ivoire. Any intervention in the West African state would almost certainly be led by the African Union (AU) with the backing of the UN. Gaddafi, a renowned pan-Africanist, is the AU’s biggest supporter. Libya currently provides 15% of the AU’s budget — a massive subsidy given there are 53 members. An intervention in Cote d’Ivoire would be expensive. Up until a few weeks ago if the move had gone ahead it may have been Gaddafi’s Libya that would have to pick up an extra share of the tab.
Of course, as analogous as the situation in Libya and events in Cote d’Ivoire may be, each situation is ultimately unique. But when it comes to the differences there is one that plays on the mind; Libya is a major supplier of oil, Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s largest supplier of cocoa. Perhaps if it were possible to power cars with chocolate, there would be more support for intervention in Cote d’Ivoire.