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Friday, April 15, 2011

Another one bites the dust: A new beginning for the Ivory Coast

Jake Velker, MPA

As of April 11th, Laurent Gbagbo has been deposed as president of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Gbagbo ruled the West African country since taking power in a chaotic election in 2000, weathering several coup attempts and a civil war. In his place will be Alassane Ouattara, a former IMF official who observers agree rightfully won the election held in November 2010. Until now, Gbagbo had refused to concede.

It is hard not to view the recent events with a measure of optimism. Gbagbo was, by all accounts, the kind of strongman that Africa needs to eliminate from its politics sooner rather than later. Despite strong growth in per capita GDP, Gbagbo did nothing in his ten years in power to heal the ethnic, religious, and economic rifts that divide the northern and southern portions of Cote d’Ivoire. Instead, he pursued a relentlessly clientelist political program and subverted democratic expression and civil society opposition wherever possible. In the most recent election, he chose to return the country to the cusp of civil war rather than step down.

Ouattara, on the other hand, appears to be a sincere reformer. He is from Cote d’Ivoire’s long-marginalized north. Much like the successful post-war leader of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, he is a western-educated technocrat with a background in economics and bureaucratic experience as Cote d’Ivoire’s former prime minister.

Some caution is in order, however. There are already circumstantial reports that pro-Ouattara forces committed atrocities against civilians in their march from the north toward Abidjan, the economic capital. Gbagbo also started as a western-educated professor and trade unionist before resorting to dirty politics. Any number of African presidents has come to power on sincere reform platforms, only to find that their countries are woefully difficult to govern effectively. Those who hope to stay in office often find the temptations of pandering to the country’s entrenched ethnic and business elite difficult to resist. Let’s hope that Ouattara is more immune to that siren song than Gbagbo.

Perhaps most intriguing for the future of Africa’s notoriously chaotic and corruption-ridden electoral systems is the relative ease with which Gbagbo’s ouster occurred, once the political will solidified. In uncharacteristically robust language, the UN refused to recognize any version of the election results that did not definitively hand Ouattara the victory. Furthermore, the Security Council unanimously condemned Gbagbo’s intransigence and strengthened the mandate of the UN Operation Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) to vigorously protect the peace. It helped that the African Union—typically the defender of the continent’s despots—supported Ouattara from the start. There was no ambiguity in this attempted fraud.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the international community stepped in at a critical time to force the issue via military means. On April 4th, combined UN and French units began attacking pro-Gbagbo forces occupying the presidential compound in Abidjan. Within 24 hours, Gbagbo’s generals were negotiating terms for his surrender. Although he hung on for another week in a spiteful attempt to render Cote d’Ivoire ungovernable for Mr. Ouattara, Gbagbo was finished.

This underscores how comparatively easy it is to secure election results in the world’s poorest countries if there is a political will. UNOCI’s modest presence of 10,000 peacekeepers was sufficient to secure the election result with only a minimum of civilian casualties. In its seven-year deployment, UNOCI has suffered only 72 fatalities.

After the hundreds of billions spent on democracy-promotion in the Middle East, one wonders whether the West might use its resources more cost-effectively simply making sure that elections in Africa don’t spark civil wars. This doesn’t need to always involve costly ground occupations, but just enough force to tilt a precarious situation in the right direction.

Recent attempts to steal elections in Africa have gone a variety of ways. In Kenya (2007) and Zimbabwe (2008), the incumbent presidents blatantly rigged election results. However, each caused enough violence, confusion, and instability to necessitate power-sharing agreements with the opposition winners. After the international community’s fickle attention flagged, they of course consolidated power, marginalized their “unity governments,” and proceeded to once again rule by fiat.

Gbagbo was unlucky to fail in similar mischief. It was of course fortunate that the UN already had a robust peacekeeping presence in Cote d’Ivoire and that France has consistently demonstrated a willingness to intervene in the affairs of its former West African colonies. Thus, it remains to be seen whether these events are the harbinger of a new, cost-effective, and (relatively) peaceful model for the enforcement of election results in Africa.

More importantly, it is entirely unclear if Ouattara will lead more responsibly than his predecessor. Indeed, there is little to suggest that African opposition parties have coherent platforms, beyond deposing the current holders of power. In the absence of independent institutions, competent bureaucracies, and equitable growth, one is forced to wonder who—other than the winner—is benefited by such nasty contests.

When a strongman is justifiably dethroned, it is democracy that wins, or just another strongman-to-be?


  1. It is important to note that while the election results were in favor of Ouattara, they were essentially a 51-49 split. As you said, the country has a marked north-south divide, and the respective candidates were the favorites of each region. Thus while Gbagbo may have been a strongman worthy of a swift kick out the door, governing will not be any easier for a president-elect who engenders the support of only half the country.

  2. "Perhaps most intriguing for the future of Africa’s notoriously chaotic and corruption-ridden electoral systems is the relative ease with which Gbagbo’s ouster occurred, once the political will solidified."

    It appears you're saying it's relatively easy for foreign powers to dislodge an African country's leader once they have decided who they want in power. It certainly was not easy for the Ivoirians, who endured near civil war for the months since the election, and hundreds of whom died.

    This shouldn't come as that much of a surprise - foreign powers have been backing coups in Africa since independence. What is perhaps most intriguing is that France, which is - as you say - still deeply involved in so many of its former colonies, is now backing a reformer instead of the incumbent strongman. France's history has been to court leaders such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Omar Bongo in Gabon.