After a few relatively quiet years in West Africa, the region has once again returned to international headlines due to conflict and political violence. This time it is Côte d’Ivoire, and the turmoil started when the opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara won the presidential election on November 29 last year. This election was supposed to contribute to peace and reconciliation, but it clearly did not. There is no doubt that Ouattara won the election, and Gbagbo must know that he lost it, but he also unfortunately seems to believe that if he just clings to power long enough, sooner or later ECOWAS, the United Nations and the international community at large will rest its case and allow him to remain in power: as the ‘rightful’ president or in the worst case, in Gbagbo’s eyes, forcing on him a national unity government solution of the same type as the one negotiated in the aftermath of the Kenyan post-election violence in 2007.
This would be a bad solution as it will set the democratic agenda in Africa several decades back, and therefore attempting to ‘master the art of clinging to power’ should not be rewarded. What is the point of an election if a losing incumbent president only needs to be as stubborn as possible to be allowed to continue to rule? It is possible that the ‘national unity government’ option was the correct solution in Kenya in 2007, but Côte d’Ivoire is not Kenya and the Kenyan solution should not in any case be seen as the leading principle for how such situations should be solved on the African continent. In that regard, it is gratifying that both the ECOWAS and the AU so far has been quite firm in their support for Ouattara. This stand should be encouraged and supported by all parties in the international community more broadly that want a more democratic African continent. However, it is also obvious that Gbagbo’s strategy is to wait for splits among African countries. He already seems to have some tactical support from Angola, not only in diplomatic terms, but also resource-wise. The South African support for the ECOWAS/AU line is reluctant, and even if Ghana has stated that it will stand by any sanctions imposed by ECOWAS, it has also made it clear that it will not contribute to any ECOWAS-led military intervention against Gbagbo. It is therefore of primary importance that the international community at large gives its unconditional support to the hard line against the Gbagbo regime that Nigeria and its president Goodluck Jonathan has taken. In this regard, important donor countries and foreign investors should make it clear that any attempt to break the international line against Gbagbo will have consequences for the country that undertake such actions. So far, the international community has not communicated this clearly enough to African countries such as Angola, Ghana and South Africa and they should do so.
It should also be noted that the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire also shows that the conduct of multi-party elections is not a prerequisite for peace and reconciliation. Elections alone do not create anything but winners and losers, and in a polarised society such as Côte d’Ivoire elections may be as equally conflict-enhancing as conflict-reducing. This is not an argument against democratic elections per se, but elections in a place such as Côte d’Ivoire should only be one of several measures adopted to ensure peace and reconciliation. Well in advance of such elections, substantial investments must be made to ensure civil society organisations that can reach across well entrenched political cleavages. Investments must be made in the institutionalisation of the political rules of engagement so that they or those that lose forthcoming election knows that such a loss will not dramatically alter their basic political and economic rights. In addition, the international community must have a backup plan when things go wrong. Unfortunately none of this seems to have been the case in Côte d’Ivoire. This is not only embarrassing, but tragic. Events as they unfold on the ground are no surprise. Rather, it was a high probability that exactly what we now see would happen if Gbagbo should lose and Ouattara win and the international community should have been aware of this.
It is therefore important both for the people of Côte d’Ivoire and the African continent that confrontation with the kind of destructive political forces that Gbagbo represents continues, insisting that the actual winner of the election also is allowed to assume power. If we let Gbagbo succeed, we will most likely see this kind of stubborn clinging to power in a number of other places on the continent in the near future, as there are a series of crucial elections forthcoming in Africa this year as well as in 2012.
This is the blog of the MICROCON research programme, featuring the reflections and opinions of MICROCON’s 60-strong team of researchers. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MICROCON as a whole.