Ivory Coast shows how old loyalties overrule elections

As the political crisis continues in Ivory Coast, there are bigger issues at stake than the fate of one country. Most important is the principle that African leaders leave office when the electorate says so.

By now, it is a familiar story. A divided country. A head of state making a final stand. A rebel army supported by the international community. Fierce fighting and the looming descent into chaos of a once-stable country.

Yet this scene is happening on the opposite side of the Sahara to Libya, in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. While the eyes of the world are fixed on Libya, something very similar is occurring not so far away. Rebel troops are preparing to push into the economic capital Abidjan in an attempt to unseat the president. With one crucial difference: the rebels massing on the outskirts of Abidjan are not fighting to bring in the ballot box, but to have its verdict respected.

It has been five months since the incumbent president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, was rejected at the ballot box and the country has not been at peace since. Mr Gbagbo has refused to stand down or recognise his opponent and has warned of a "foreign occupation" of his country.

The election was judged fair by the United Nations, which carried out monitoring, meaning that Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minster, is the legitimate winner. But Mr Gbagbo maintains control over parts of the media and the army and, while violence has raged around the country, has clung on.

Even as African leaders came to Ivory Coast to mediate a solution - and Mr Ouattara squatted in a luxury hotel waiting for his turn in power - the former president has maintained that he is the legitimate leader. Threats of military action against him by outside powers and sanctions that have been levied against his supporters have not changed his mind. Now, with rebel troops surrounding his presidential palace and more gathering on the outskirts of Abidjan, the last city he controls, the final siege could be even more bloody.

The fight for the country has been brutal and even those respecting the democratic process have not come out of it blameless. Just last week, about 1,000 people were killed in Duekoue, a city in the west that is under the control of Mr Ouattara's troops. The UN has voiced suspicions that his forces may have carried out a massacre of civilians. Mr Ouattara denies the allegations.

The country has vivid memories of ethnic violence: it is only a few years ago that a civil war was fought between north and south. The same geographic and ethnic divisions have reopened since the recent elections.

Tensions remain high. Mr Ouattara has sought to defuse suggestions that he would govern only in the interests of his northern support base. "I want to govern with all Ivorians, I don't want to exclude any Ivorians," he declared at the start of the year. "My first priority is to ban exclusion and protect minorities."

There are bigger issues at stake than the fate of one country. Mr Gbagbo has called for international mediation - he may yet be hoping to stay in power in some guise. Yet the principle at stake in Ivory Coast applies to several countries across the African continent; the principle that African leaders leave office when the electorate says so.

Sub-Saharan Africa has suffered from some of the same political problems as the Arab world, with incumbents remaining in power for years and decades. When the ballot box ousts these leaders, they often try to ignore the vote.

This is what happened in Kenya in 2007, when a disputed election that the incumbent Mwai Kibaki appeared to have lost resulted in widespread civil unrest. For months, Kenya was rocked by violence, some of it along ethnic lines, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands more. A grand coalition was finally agreed, which kept the incumbent as president and gave his opponent the post of prime minister.

The coalition ended the violence, but maintained the idea that violence along ethnic lines could override the will of the people. One of the issues that has fuelled the violence in Ivory Coast has been the ethnic and religious differences among the people. Sandwiched between five countries, with millions of its neighbour Burkina Faso's citizens within its borders, and untold numbers leaving as refugees, these tensions could get worse even if the current situation is resolved.

If and when Mr Gbagbo goes, there is still the serious question of how his successor intends to govern in the national interest, rather than simply reward his supporters. That ethnic violence has gripped the country so easily speaks to the loyalties of clan and region being stronger than a national identity. Many countries of Africa were forced together in unfamiliar ways under colonialism. That was the case too for the Arab world. Yet as the nationalistic feelings evoked by the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak have shown, much of the Arab world has made peace with their borders and believes in a national identity. That will make any eventual transition to democracy easier.

In much of Africa, as in Ivory Coast, that negotiation is still ahead. If Mr Ouattara becomes the leader of Ivory Coast, it will reinforce the idea of the primacy of the ballot box. But he will need to govern in the interests of all the country, and not only those who used their guns on his side, to lay the ghosts of this bloody period to rest.



Published: April 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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