On Monday, soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara dragged Laurent Gbagbo from Côte d'Ivoire's presidential palace, which by then had been bombed into ruins by French and UN attack helicopters. Last November, Ouattara was elected president of Côte d'Ivoire, but he had been confined to an Abidjan hotel by the country's army, which until recently remained loyal to Gbagbo.

After the November election, Gbagbo's strategy to hold onto power was a play for time, while he waited for fissures to grow among his many critics on the African continent and beyond. Instead, the international community showed rare unanimity and held a united front against Gbagbo, nicknamed Le Boulanger for his ability to roll his adversaries in flour. The West African central bank blocked his government's access to Ivorian state accounts; other countries ceased recognizing ambassadors appointed by Gbagbo; and in the end, even Gbagbo's own soldiers and civil servants saw that he would soon be unable to pay them, leading most to defect to the pro-Ouattara side. Once Ouattara's fighters made a southward push from their northern bases in late March, they met little resistance until they reached the last Abidjan neighborhoods held by the most loyal of Gbagbo's remaining troops.

In 2004, an Ivorian academic told me of a local saying: "When two men are having a fistfight, you must first wait until it is clear which one is going to win, and then you must step in before someone gets really hurt." At the time, he was remarking on the exceptionally quick intervention by West African and French troops that prematurely froze the 2002 civil war. That conflict was fought between Gbagbo and the Forces Nouvelles, a rebel group that had tried to overthrow him before settling for control of the country's north. In the end, both sides believed that if the war had been allowed to follow its natural course, they would have won; paradoxically, both camps blamed France for preventing their own victory.

In a sense, the pro-Ouattara troops who swept southward this month from what had been their rebel strongholds in the north have completed the unfinished business of 2002. There is now a clear military victor -- and a correspondingly higher level of killing and atrocities. Sadly, this time, the fight was not stopped "before someone got really hurt." In the most dramatic instance, on March 29, hundreds of men and boys were executed in Duékoué, a town in the country's west. This single massacre left as many dead as did the entire Ivorian conflict from 2003 to 2010.

Côte d'Ivoire's conflict is a complex one. On a superficial level, the battle is between Christian and Muslim, north and south. But in fact, Gbagbo, Ouattara, and the other major political players have used identity politics in an attempt to monopolize power as they adapted to the dictates of multiparty democracy, which became a prerequisite for international recognition and development aid after the Cold War. From 1995 to 2005, Ivorian Presidents Henri Bédié, Robert Gueï, and Gbagbo all questioned Ouattara's citizenship as a means of excluding him from competition. Ouattara, a U.S.-trained economist and former International Monetary Fund official, first made his appearance in Ivorian politics in 1990, when he became prime minister to Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who served as president from Ivorian independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. 

Ironically, it was Outtara who introduced the hated cartes de séjour, workers' permit cards that ushered in the anti-immigrant policies of a government facing a shrinking economy. Ouattara was originally reviled by immigrants and their children because of this policy, but he was transformed into a hero and leader of this group when he was personally subjected to the same xenophobic rhetoric. Succeeding presidents continued to pursue a nativist politics, in an attempt to both exclude Ouattara and his presumed electoral base from participation in elections and direct attention away from the country's steadily declining economy. Côte d'Ivoire's GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) was $2,977 in 1978; it was $1,551 in 2004. From 1990 to 2006, the country slid 18 places on the UN Human Development Index, with neighbors such as Togo and Senegal passing it during that period. This slide was a result of both external factors (steadily falling world prices for cocoa and coffee starting in the mid-1980s) and internal ones (extensive mismanagement by successive governments).  

Few of the actors in the Ivorian conflict are motivated by ideology or true interethnic hatred. In my book, Making War in Côte d'Ivoire, I argue that even targeted violence such as that perpetrated by the pro-Gbagbo "Young Patriots" has often been framed by Ivorians as a form of play. Such a perception gives the participants a kind of plausible deniability. Perhaps more important, it explains how people who do not in fact hate those "on the other side" can be recruited into movements whose activities often resemble outdoor festivals more than menacing protests. But the situation of neither war nor peace has been lucrative for many powerful camps within the Ivory Coast: politicians, the virulent press, youth militias, and the security forces, who have used the state of emergency to shake down civilians at checkpoints.

Have outside actors helped or harmed this long-simmering, low-level conflict? At first, West African states, the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations spoke with one voice, insisting that Ouattara had won the election and that a power-sharing agreement (of the kind that has failed miserably in Kenya and Zimbabwe) was not an option. Such unanimity countered Gbagbo's strategy of playing for time, hoping that African-European or inter-African schisms would provide him with some sort of mitigated legitimacy. Economic moves by the eight West African states that share the CFA currency to cut off the Gbagbo government's access to banking channels was innovative and undercut Gbagbo's ability to pay the salaries of civil servants and soldiers.  

Yet as the endgame neared, many members of the international community acted in ways that were dangerously counterproductive. For example, when Gbagbo was hiding and refusing to give up power, one can think of few statements more unhelpful than the declaration by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, that no one in Côte d'Ivoire could receive amnesty from war crimes prosecution. With one sentence, Moreno-Ocampo ensured that Gbagbo would reject any negotiated solution and instead fight to the end.  

Similarly, France's decision to send its own attack helicopters to accompany those from the United Nations in raids to destroy Gbagbo's weaponry in Abidjan was equally misguided. UN forces had a clear mandate to act from UN Security Council Resolution 1975; France on its own may or may not have had the same mandate, depending on how one reads Points 6 and 7 of the resolution. This is a legal question that Russia -- concerned, as usual, that the Security Council not breach state sovereignty -- says it is investigating. Such open and direct French participation in the attack directly played into the rhetoric of the Gbagbo regime, which long portrayed the Ivorian conflict as a proxy war waged by the French to reassert neocolonial control over Côte d'Ivoire.

If Ouattara is to have any chance of ruling all of Côte d'Ivoire peaceably in the coming months and years, international actors will have to be far more thoughtful and careful than they have been in the past month. Perceptions are as important as realities, and everything the international actors do will be read by Gbagbo's supporters -- who were, after all, 46 percent of the electorate -- with extreme skepticism. The risks in failing to demonstrate absolute neutrality now will only become apparent in the months ahead, when Côte d'Ivoire either begins to rebuild from decades of disastrous rule and violence, or slides more deeply into war, pillage, and polarization.

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