I felt mixed emotions when I learned of the capture of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan on Monday. I had to ask myself: was this the end of the Ivorians’ agony? Or just the beginning of another West African bloodbath?
Memories of my own childhood were strong. I was an 18-year-old refugee from the Liberian civil war living in the Buduburam Camp in Ghana when my country’s president, Samuel K. Doe, was captured and executed in Monrovia. At the camp, we celebrated. We felt Doe had been a force of evil, and that he was responsible for inciting the war. With him dead, it might end. Soon, I thought, I could leave this grim life and go home.
I was 32 before peace finally came to my country. And as I heard stories of desperate Ivorian refugees fleeing their country—ironically, into Liberia, where they suffered and starved, because there weren’t the resources to support them—I knew that somewhere among them was a girl just like me.
The headline in today’s Ghanian Chronicle, my local paper, called Gbagbo, who was a history professor, “the historian who failed to learn from history.” The president lived through the same war years I did. He saw Liberian leaders like Doe, and Charles Taylor after him, and Sierra Leonean warlord Foday Sankoh greedily grasp at power only to be driven from office, arrested, killed. Why did he think his story would turn out differently? The same question applies in a larger way. Sometimes it’s depressing to be a West African looking at West Africa. We seem to be a region that doesn’t learn from the past.
Look at the images of the capture and imprisonment of Gbagbo and his family in Abidjan’s Hotel du Golf. Humiliatingly, the president is shown in his undershirt, wiping off sweat with a towel. Michel, his son from a prior marriage to a white Frenchwoman, is beaten bloody by a crowd of cheering men waving guns. His wife, Simone, who two years ago walked this same hotel’s corridors surrounded by security and bodyguards, is captured in a chilling photo surrounded by six men in camouflage who grab at her as if she were a spoil of war. Her dress is hiked above her knees, and pulled down at the shoulders to partially expose her breasts. Whatever Gbagbo’s sins—and yes, they were many—a significant percentage of Ivorians supported him in the last election. Images of his family’s degradation will do nothing but prompt those supporters to seek revenge—and perpetuate an endless cycle of violence.
Sometimes it’s depressing to be a West African looking at West Africa. We seem to be a region that doesn’t learn from the past.
Liberia’s war lasted 14 years. What determines whether or not Ivory Coast will suffer a similar fate depends on strong and immediate leadership from the international community. We must ensure that:
• Gbagbo and his family members are treated humanely and with dignity, in accordance with relevant international protocols and conventions. They must not be subject to insult and physical abuse.
• President-elect Alassane Ouattara and his supporters refrain from a witch hunt and summary execution of members of Gbagbo’s army, political supporters and ethnic group.
• The United Nations immediately creates a safe zone for citizens and establishes control over security in the country until legitimate national security forces are in place.
• Members of both pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces immediately turn in their arms.
• The U.N., African Union and Economic Community of West African States swiftly put into place an internally-established mechanism to investigate all large-scale human-rights violations and abuses alleged to have taken place during the bloody standoff. Unless justice is handed out dispassionately, Gbagbo’s capture will only be the beginning of strife and massacre along regional and ethnic lines.
Equally important, the women of Ivory Coast must step forward to lead the country in its process of reconciliation. On March 3, while the conflict raged, hundreds of women gathered peacefully in Abidjan to pressure their leaders for peace. Seven of them—unarmed, holding palm branches—were shot to death by forces loyal to Gbagbo.
As a memorial to those women, and drawing on West African women’s rich history of activism and holding their leaders accountable, the country’s women must put aside their political, ethnic and religious differences and declare their common interest: Bringing peace to their country and restoring hope to their children.
The Liberian peace and women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee is The Daily Beast’s Africa columnist. As war ravaged Liberia, Leymah Gbowee realized it is women who bear the greatest burden in prolonged conflicts. She began organizing Christian and Muslim women to demonstrate together, founding Liberian Mass Action for Peace and launching protests and a sex strike. Gbowee’s work in helping to oust Charles Taylor was featured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.