December 29, 2010

The Ivoirian solution

A few years ago I spent some time in Cote D’Ivoire, known in the States as The Ivory Coast. I’ve been remembering that time lately as I’ve followed the current situation in that country.

When I was there in 2003 and 2004 the country was far from peaceful. Immigrants in the north, mostly Muslims from neighboring countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Niger, Mauritania and Nigeria were taking agriculture jobs from native Ivoirians, causing general unrest and placing the majority Christian government between a rock and a hard place.

Muslims generally do not respond well to being governed by non-Muslims and the situation in Cote D’Ivoire was no exception. President Bedie, a Christian and only the second President since independence from France, was hugely unpopular in the Muslim north. In 1999, to keep the Presidency in Christian hands, the General Assembly passed a resolution that effectively banned a popular Muslim Prime Minister from running against Bedie. Muslims in the Ivoirian Army promptly staged a coup and installed General Guei as President.

In the 2000 elections, Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian was installed as President in an unexpected popular uprising, which again stirred trouble in the north. Over time there was violence that spread into the south, even in the once pristine garden-like capitol city of Abidjan. In 2002 General Guei was killed on the eve of another attempted coup, and President Gbagbo retained his office. The violence, however, never ceased.

Now the tide has again turned and Gbagbo was on the losing end in the November 28 election. Challenger Alasanne Ouatarra won the popular vote by a narrow margin, but Gbagbo is refusing to step down and is using his control over Christian elements in the Ivoirian Army to foment violence, including direct assaults on the building in which Outarra has set up his government in waiting. Here we go again.

Until about 40 years ago there were few elections in Africa as most of the continent was still claimed as colonies by various European countries. As the colonial powers released their hold, elections became commonplace. As a general rule in African politics the incumbent party will win and nothing else happens, but when the incumbent loses violence regularly ensues. In fact, only once in all these years have we seen power peacefully transferred following an election loss.

Following the disputed 2007 Kenyan election, mobs took to the streets attacking each other. Violence raged for months until the African Union intervened. But the intervention was far from satisfactory. The AU engineered a power-sharing arrangement, effectively granting a share of the Presidency to the looser. Perhaps that was the expeditious thing to do at the time, but the arrangement is now on the brink of collapse. It also unfortunately reinforced a precedent; in Africa, if you lose an election, you start a war.

Which is why I find what is happening in Cote D’Ivoire only three years later to be somewhat remarkable. All of a sudden the people of that continent have become fed up with all the violence and are saying enough is enough. Several groups, including the AU, the 16-member Economic Community of Western African States (of which Cote D’Ivoire is a member), the United Nations, France and the United States are all calling on Gbagbo to peacefully step down. ECOWAS has gone so far as to issue an ultimatum to Gbagbo commanding him to relinquish power, or face military intervention.

All of this speaks well for the future of free, fair, democratic elections in Africa. It also speaks well of the African Union’s and ECOWAS desire to support democratic elections. Africans are accustomed to foreign interference. They have always resisted and they always will, but if African initiated diplomacy can convince Gbagbo to peacefully surrender power, or if Africans stand together to oust him, other tinpot despots might reconsider the thought of violence following an election loss.

But if they back down and attempt the Kenyan solution again, we may never see the end of bloodshed on the dark continent.

UPDATE: Too late. ECOWAS blinked.



One Fly said...

I share a bit of optimism with this post but the longer this goes the worse it will probably get. This slug shows no indication he's giving up.

As always the little people will bear the brunt of this.

Old NFO said...

Sad but true, and I'd hope common sense will prevail! But I'm really not counting on that happening. ECOWAS doesn't have enough political capital (my opinion) to invade and get away with it.