DAKAR (Reuters) - The arrest of Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo ends a four-month standoff with presidential rival Alassane Ouattara, but it may not be enough to end a civil war and soothe ethnic divisions in the world’s top cocoa grower.
Ouattara will have to address long-term problems that have festered during his lengthy dispute with Gbagbo, principally the need to foster reconciliation in a nation riven by ethnic violence.
Although Gbagbo lost last November’s election presidential election, results certified by the United Nations showed that he still won 46 percent of the vote and Ouattara will have show he can govern for those voters as well as his own supporters.
But in the commercial capital Abidjan at least, Ouattara faces more immediate problems.
The city has been mauled by the fighting in recent weeks and more than one million have fled.
To win the support of the inhabitants who remain, Ouattara must act swiftly to restore water supplies, electric power and the availability of food. Economic activity, which has ground to a halt, will have to be revived.
Ouattara must also, presumably with the aid of French and United Nations forces, end the climate of lawlessness and insecurity that currently prevails. Despite Gbagbo’s detention, gangs of his youth supporters, armed with rifles, are still at large in the capital.
Gbagbo was detained on Monday after French forces backed by tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters closed in on his residence.
French forces played down their role in the arrest, fearful that it may play into the hands of Gbagbo’s loyalists -- who had denounced all along what they said was the former colonial power’s bid to oust him.
But it is clear that the French military played a crucial role in capturing Gbagbo, whose forces regained ground in Abidjan after a heavy assault on his residence by Ouattara’s fighters last week was repelled.
“I think the French and the international community felt they had little choice but to go in and get him. The fighting in Abidjan was causing a humanitarian crisis and stopping the economy getting back on track,” said Africa analyst Martin Roberts of IHS Global Insight.
“But it will play into Gbagbo’s story that there is an international conspiracy against him, and it is not good that Ouattara’s forces were not able to do it on their own.”
Ouattara takes over a deeply divided country, and accusations that his forces committed serious crimes while advancing toward Abidjan will complicate any reconciliation effort.
“At the end of the day, even according to the U.N.-certified results 46 percent of the population voted for Gbagbo. The opposition have made it very clear that they want him to go on trial but that could prove very divisive,” Roberts said.
In a damning report, Human Rights Watch said forces loyal to Ouattara had killed hundreds of civilians, raped over 20 women and girls perceived as belonging to Gbagbo’s camp and burned at least 10 villages in western Ivory Coast.
Around 1,000 bodies have already been found, according to aid groups, in the cocoa and coffee-rich region, a tinderbox where deep-seated ethnic rivalries have been exacerbated by festering land disputes.
Gbagbo’s forces, which include militias and self-defense groups, are also accused of widespread abuses against civilians.
Religious and tribal faultines in the west mirror the divide between Gbagbo, whose traditional powerbase is in the Christian and animist south, and Ouattara’s Muslim, northern-based forces.
“The conflict in Cote d‘Ivoire is not simply one between two presidential candidates, but between two entrenched ethno-political factions which won’t be ended simply because Gbagbo gives up,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, managing director at DaMina Advisors.
Ouattara has promised to bring those responsible for atrocities from all sides to justice but that might be far from easy.
There have already been signs of divisions in Ouattara’s camp, with top military brass -- some of whom have fought to oust Gbagbo since a 2002-03 civil war split the country in two -- jostling for influence in a post-Gbagbo Ivory Coast.
“The pro-Ouattara camp is not really pro-Ouattara as much as it is anti-Gbagbo. They are more against Gbagbo than they are in favor of Ouattara. An example is Ibrahim Coulibaly, the leader of the ‘Invisible Commandos’ militia, who has said that he will run for the presidency,” said Robert Besseling, senior Africa forecaster at Exclusive Analysis.
“The most likely outcome of Gbagbo’s detention is a transfer to The Hague, and the publicity that will generate will tend to aggravate the whole conflict again.”
Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, William Maclean and Peter Apps in London; Editing by Giles Elgood