Ivory Coast in speech-fueled catastrophe

After months of vicious inflammatory speech, Cote d’Ivoire is exploding. Today there are battles in the main city of Abidjan, including around the Presidential Palace which Laurent Gbagbo has refused to vacate since, by virtually all accounts except his, he lost the elections last November 28 to Alassane Ouattara.  Instead of leaving power, Gbagbo and his allies have used inflammatory speech to frighten the population and incite his supporters – against pro-Ouattara Ivoirians, many of whom come from mainly Muslim northern Cote d’Ivoire, and against the foreign observers who know that Gbagbo lost. Gbagbo has repeatedly made the terrifying claim that the French government and the UN operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) are preparing a genocide against Ivoirians. “We are going to defend the sovereignty of our country until the last drop of our sweat. I urge all Ivorians to make themselves ready for this combat. We are going to totally liberate our country,” said Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo’s youth minister who is already under UN sanctions for leading violence five years ago. This January, after such messages were widely disseminated via the national network RTI, and in pro-Gbagbo newspapers, gangs of youths loyal to Gbagbo burned three UN vehicles and attacked an ambulance.  Ivoirians themselves have been more frequent and vulnerable targets, of course. In March, for example, Ivoirian troops machine-gunned a group of women marching peacefully in favor of Ouattara in Abidjan.
Now it is growing much worse. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports that at least 800 people were killed on Tuesday in the Western Ivoirian town of Duekoue. Parts of Abidjan are war zones, as fighters loyal to Ouattara attempt to take the city and oust Gbagbo.  “Abidjan is on the brink of a human rights catastrophe and total chaos” says Salvatore Saguès, Amnesty International’s researcher on West Africa.

Gbagbo and his allies – including journalists – have used classic techniques of incitement, trying to persuade their audiences that they are in mortal danger from ostensible enemies. On January 19, Francis Deng and Edward Luck, UN Special Advisors for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, respectively, said they were “deeply troubled by reports of continuing hate speech that appears to be aimed at inciting violent attacks against particular ethnic and national groups” and on the same day, the UN Security Council demanded an “immediate halt to the use of media, especially [the pro-Gbagbo] Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne, to propagate false information and to incite hatred and violence, including against the U.N.” The following day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon backed up the demand with a threat that Ivoirian inciters could face prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

Unfortunately RTI and other Ivoirian media continued to propagate inflammatory speech, stirring up more fear and anger with each week of the long crisis. Following the playbook for ruthless incitement, Gbagbo and his unelected government have also shut down Ivoirians’ access to other sources of information, banning foreign news broadcasts, arresting journalists and now threatening to block websites that comment objectively or critically on the situation in Cote d’Ivoire. Tragically, this disaster was no surprise. It was not even the first time for Cote d’Ivoire; from 2001-2004 the country suffered a previous convulsion of incitement and violence. Perhaps the next one can be averted if the UN carries out its threat to prosecute some of the people who have knowingly, systematically catalyzed disaster.