Ivory Coast stands on the brink of civil war. The constitutional coup staged by the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo after last year's presidential elections has led to a wave of rapidly worsening violence, and the situation is a serious threat to peace and stability in west Africa. A solution requires decisive action by the African community, with Gbagbo's departure needed to halt a return to all-out war.
The November elections were meant as the culmination of a painstaking peace process that followed the country's civil war. Gbagbo, however, simply refused to accept the result once his main challenger, Alassane Ouattara, was declared the winner.
There is no doubt that Gbagbo lost the election. Ouattara had a winning margin of more than 350,000 votes, and the UN certified the vote as free and fair. In an attempt to reverse the outcome, the Constitutional Council – firmly in the hands of Gbagbo supporters – largely fabricated fraud in the centre and north, where Ouattara enjoys huge support, pushing the incumbent's share of the vote over 50% and declaring him the winner.
Gbagbo has since become an international pariah, digging in his heels and ignoring strong pressure to leave. Violent incidents have been building in number and intensity. The UN has reported close to 400 deaths, mostly Ouattara supporters, as well as rapes and disappearance at the hands of pro-Gbagbo security forces. In one particularly shocking incident, the army last week opened fire on peaceful protesters in the largest city, Abidjan, killing seven women.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said parts of the city resemble a war zone.
Ethnic and religious divisions between the south and the north run deep, but the differences have been mobilised by political actors in their quest for absolute power. Unless a solution to the crisis can be found, a return to the devastating 2002-03 civil war is the likely outcome.
International efforts to mediate have so far been fruitless. Gbagbo has refused offers of amnesty if he leaves the country, and the international community must realise that he is willing to resort to anything to keep his grip on power, even if it means dragging the country into anarchy and economic disaster.
Divisions at the UN security council mean that body has been ineffective in its response. Hope now rests on an African solution, but the continent is also worryingly divided on how to respond.
The African Union summit in Addis Ababa decided in late January to convene a high-level panel comprising five heads of state from across the continent. It should have concluded its one-month mandate in February, but now it has an extension until the end of March. The delay reflects a dangerous disagreement when urgent action is needed.
Nigeria and South Africa are divided over who should take the lead in west Africa, while Gbagbo still has supporters across the continent from countries that share his anti-western, and especially anti-French, rhetoric. Many also accuse the west of hypocrisy, pointing to other flawed, recent African elections that were deemed "acceptable". Gbagbo and his allies, however, have conveniently forgotten that he agreed to the election modalities and the UN's certifier role, as part of the peace process.
The panel's dithering is unnecessary and potentially deadly.
After all, nobody expects it to disagree with the AU's and Ecowas's earlier unconditional backing of Ouattara as the rightful winner. The panel's eventual solution should focus solely on recommendations for Ouattara to pursue a reconciliatory policy aimed at bringing pro-Gbagbo elements into a national unity government. Any other formula, especially anything that gives Gbagbo hopes of clinging on to power through a power-sharing deal, would now look like a stamp of approval for the coup. Gbagbo is clearly the sole architect of the current crisis, and he needs to go immediately.
If African leaders fail to meet this challenge, it would have dire consequences for Ivory Coast and for the continent.
Civil war would return, with untold suffering for the civilian population, while the credibility of the AU and Ecowas would be seriously undermined. It would harm their ability to deal with any future election disputes in a year with several key votes across Africa.
Armed conflict in Ivory Coast could spark unilateral military intervention by neighbours. A potential nightmare scenario would be a proxy war where various countries take sides, similar to what unfolded in Liberia in the 1990s. African leaders ought to sort this out now before they find themselves dragged into a deadly and costly wider conflict. Major world powers, including the US, the European Union and France, which maintains a military force in the country, should stay firm in their rejection of Gbagbo's regime and be ready to support by all means the decisions of the African organisations.
Rinaldo Depagne is west Africa senior analyst at the International Crisis Group