Joyous celebrations erupted in the main city of Abidjan and western leaders expressed relief at news that Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo was arrested Monday. But analysts warn considerable challenges remain to restore stability and quell political and unrest in the West African nation.
Opposition forces took Gbagbo and his wife into custody after French troops stormed his presidential compound. It was the culmination of a bloody months-long stand-off that left several hundred people dead and as many as a million displaced in the wake of disputed November presidential elections.
The United Nations and world powers have said Gbagbo clearly lost the UN-monitored Nov. 28 election to his rival Alassane Ouattara, a former Ivory Coast prime minister and International Monetary Fund economist. But Gbagbo has refused to go, stoking political and ethnic divisions in the country, and portraying Ouattara as a stooge of the west, in particular of the country's former French colonial rulers.
Human rights groups have also registered alarm about the conduct of forces loyal to Ouattara in the days leading to Gbagbo's arrest.
Ouattara loyalists "killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 alleged [Gbagbo] supporters … and burned at least 10 villages in Côte d'Ivoire's far western region," Human Rights Watch charged in a detailed report over the weekend. The group urged Ouattara, once in office, to "open a credible and impartial investigation into serious abuses by both sides and ensure that those responsible at all levels are brought to justice."
"There's been abuses committed by both sides, the lions-share by Gbagbo loyalists, but Ouattara's forces have been implicated as well," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I think the most important thing that Ouattara could do now ... is to be seen to be responding to these allegations," of violence committed by his loyalists, Downie continued. "He really must do that, because he is inheriting a very divided country. Many people in Ivory Coast do not see him as legitimate."
Ivory Coast, a former French colony, has a long history of ethnic, religious and political divides. Ouattara, from the predominantly Muslim north of the country, has been relentlessly portrayed by Gbagbo as "not Ivorian," Downie said.
Further complicating matters is the role played by 1,600 French troops. Though the French military intervention helped bring a swift end to the political standoff, it plays to anti-colonialist sentiments in the country and to Gbagbo's portrayal of Ouattara as something of a French puppet, Downie said. Gbagbo supporters insisted Monday that that it was French forces that arrested Gbagbo, rather than Ivorians seizing him after French forces stormed Gbagbo's compound.
"I think the French did what needed to be done -- and they did it in support of a very robust UN Security Council resolution, but it's unfortunate it had to come to this," said Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa.
The challenge for Ouattara as he tries to unite the country, Frazer said, will be "how to handle Gbagbo in terms of whether they get him out of the country, or put him on trial." Frazer said in the interests of calming inflamed political divisions, "a trial probably needs to wait and not be a first act."
More immediately, she noted, Ouattara will have to address the humanitarian crisis in the country, including the country's estimated one million internally displaced people, as well as thousands who have fled abroad.
The United Nations estimates that at least 400 people have been killed, while Human Rights Watch estimated that hundreds of ethnic Guéré civilians were massacred in the town of Duékoué on March 29 alone.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the State Department Monday, welcomed Gbagbo's arrest, calling it a sign to "dictators and tyrants throughout the region" that "there will be consequences for those who cling to power."
(Top: In this image made from television, Laurent Gbagbo is seen after his arrest, at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, April 11, 2011.: TCI /APTN/AP. Right: Local residents take to the street to celebrate the capture of Laurent Gbagbo, in the Youpougon neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, April 11, 2011.: Rebecca Blackwell/AP)