Shootings and rapes: the story of the Ivory Coast
Briefing: How this sub- Saharan cocoa country came to be on the ‘brink of genocide’
The shooting dead of four demonstrators in Abidjan, the main city of the Ivory Coast, by rogue army officers supporting President Laurent Gbagbo, has finally brought sub-Saharan Africa's "forgotten crisis" into the headlines.
Since a disputed presidential election in November, the Ivory Coast has been experiencing unrest equal to Libya's - and yet few seem to be paying any attention.
The UN, the United States and the European Union have all formally recognised Alassane Ouattara as the rightful winner of the election, but the incumbent, Gbagbo, has refused to give up power.
Despite horrifying reports of gang rape and genocide, the situation in the Ivory Coast has largely been ignored by the international community, partly because of the focus on Libya to the north. Yet Chals Wontewe, Oxfam's country director in Liberia, says violence, intimidation and sexual assault are widespread and that "the situation is now deteriorating rapidly".
HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?The Ivory Coast – or Cote d'Ivoire - has been riven with ethnic and social tensions for more than a decade. The cocoa boom led to it becoming much richer than its neighbours, which attracted thousands of migrant workers from other African countries, many of whom were Muslim.
This caused a deep divide between the Islamic immigrant-heavy north and the Christian ‘Ivorian' south. Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim, was consequently banned from a 2000 election for having a father from Burkina Faso. It was at this point that Laurent Gbagbo, a Roman Catholic history professor, came to power in a popular uprising.
In 2002, the northern rebel group New Forces attempted a coup against Gbagbo, and the Ivory Coast was plunged into a civil war which killed around 3,000 people. The north and south of the country have since remained divided.
Gbagbo was supposed to call an election in 2005, but managed to postpone it for five years. The election was finally held on November 28, 2010 and Ouattara was internationally recognised as the winner, despite a rigged election in favour of Gbagbo.
WHAT'S BEEN HAPPENING SINCE NOVEMBER?With Gbagbo still refusing to be budged, violence has broken out across the country, and the economy has ground to a standstill. Petrol and food are running out and many banks have closed. Some 500,000 people have lost their jobs.
The United Nations has put the death toll at around 400, but this is likely to be an under-estimate as UN officials have been forcefully prevented from going about their work. There have been claims of hidden mass graves, which the UN has so far been prevented from investigating.
Up to 70,000 people have fled the country into Liberia alone, causing a refugee crisis on a similar scale to that on Libya's borders.
Electricity has been cut off in the north, and hospitals have been forced to use generators. A spokesman for Gbagbo said it was due to "missing spare parts".
WHAT'S GOING ON NOW?Gbagbo still enjoys the overwhelming support of the military and much of the south, where Islam and the Ivory Coast are considered incompatible. He has assumed control of the state radio, the Ivory Coast's most popular medium, and commands a youth group called the Young Patriots, led by Charles Ble Goude.
Ouattara has so far remained holed up in his UN-protected hotel in Abidjan, from where he has called on the international and African community to intervene in his favour.
The violence has been escalating. On March 3 seven women were shot by soldiers during an all-female protest against Gbagbo in Abobo, a pro-Ouattara northern area of Abidjan. The demonstration in Abidjan in which four people were killed this week was in protest against the March 3 shootings.
Also in recent days, UN inspectors have been fired on while looking into reports that Gbagbo had bought three helicopters from Belarus, a violation of the UN arms embargo placed on him.
There are also rumours that Gbagbo has hired Liberian mercenaries who were responsible for some of the worst atrocities during the 2002 civil war. New Forces has responded by seizing control of a 30-mile corridor along the western border of the country in order to prevent any further dealings between Gbagbo and Liberia.
WHAT IS ANYONE DOING ABOUT IT?As well as the arms embargo, the UN has imposed economic sanctions on Gbagbo's government, including a ban on any cocoa exports. The World Bank and the West African Central Bank have frozen Gbagbo's assets.
The African Union is supposed to be mediating. It has been severely hampered by South African president Jacob Zuma's refusal to come down on either side about the outcome of the election.
The AU has extended its deadline for finding a resolution until the end of March. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which like the UN and the EU has formally recognised Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the November election, has offered to remove Gbagbo by force if mediation fails.
The International Crisis Group believes a return to full-scale civil war is "imminent" and will only be stopped by "unilateral military intervention by neighbours".
WHY HAVE WE HEARD SO LITTLE ABOUT IT?The world's attention has remained focused squarely on the unrest throughout the Arab world, especially Libya. Noticeably, President Barack Obama has said nothing about the matter, despite making several statements on the situation in Libya.
Drew Hinshaw, writing in the Huffington Post, says: "His [Obama's] silence empowers brutes on either side of the civil conflict, who've enjoyed free reign to fire on demonstrators or shovel mass graves while the planet's news cameras orbit the Arab world - as if nothing important happens south of the Sahara."
The Ivory Coast's UN ambassador, an Ouattara loyalist called Youssoufou Bamba, has said the country is "on the brink of genocide". He has repeatedly called for the Ivory Coast to be given the same attention as Libya. "They are the same thing; they are using weapons to kill peaceful civilians." ·
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