The situation in Cote d’Ivoire is extremely sad and disturbing. Since the results of the November 28th run-off election was made public by the Independent Electoral Commission, outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo has defied international pressure and is clinging tenaciously to power.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, the United States of America, France, China and the United Nations Security Council have all backed Alassane Ouattara, a former Prime minister who was named winner with 54.1 percent of the votes. But Gbagbo has refused to budge, preferring instead to foist a national crisis on his country, shutting down almost all the media in the country and closing the national borders. He has gone ahead to swear himself in as a President for another term.
I used to admire the television clips of Abidjan on Cable News Network (CNN) as a growing young boy. I had very beautiful pictures of the city in my mind and always longed for something to take me there. However, sometime in May this year, I visited Cote d’Ivoire for the annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB). It was my first visit to that country and I must say that I was extremely disappointed with what I saw right from the airport. Those images in my childhood television clips are now obviously lost. Abidjan city wore an entirely different look with the unpleasant scars of war imprinted on every nook and cranny. Desolation and fear were on the faces of citizens. Land lords refused to renovate their houses, apparently for fear that they might be destroyed if hostilities resume. Even the famous Hotel D’ Ivoire where we were staying was still being reconstructed even as such an important meeting was going on inside. It was the then President Laurent Gbagbo (now former) who came to declare the meeting open. Even though the atmosphere in the city was palpably tense, he openly boasted that peace had returned to Cote d’ Ivoire and invited all those international organizations like the AfDB who once resided in Abidjan and relocated their headquarters at the peak of the war, to return to Abidjan.
A deeply, politically divided society.
One will not know how deeply divided Cote d’Ivoire is, and how explosive internal criticism can be until you engage in a political conversation with the citizens. During one of the AfDB meeting with civil society, I inadvertently stepped onto that dangerous ground. In the course of my interventions, I had a reason to crack a joke and made jest of so the so-called “Ivorization” policy. The immediate response I got from my predominantly Ivorien audience shocked me and I had to quickly move over to a different topic altogether. A colleague of mine from Mali, who knew the fragility of the situation better, later warned me never to ever joke about that kind of thing during my stay.
The ‘Ivorization’ policy is a politically motivated tribalistic policy introduced by the now 76 year old deposed former President Henri Konan Bedie, after the death of the former President and father of Cote d’Ivoire Felix Houphoet-Boigny. His main objective was to solidify power as Houphoet-Boigny’s successor. The policy sought to deny Ivorien citizenship to people who were born in and had lived in Cote d’Ivoire, but who had either or both parents born in a neighboring country such as Burkina Faso,Mali, Senegal or Niger Republic. It was a very unjust policy that was primarily designed to prevent the now newly elected President Alassane Ouattara from contesting for the Presidency in July 1999 because he was a “foreigner”. That policy made it easy for Mr. Konan Bedie, who was then President of parliament to retain Presidency of the country in a flawed election process. The cancerous consequences of that single virulent political seed has followed that country ever since. It metamorphosed into bitter divisions that ended up in an armed conflict in 2002 after President Gbagbo continued with ethnocentric politics to retain power and control the economy. Cote d’Ivoire is rich in cocoa, coffee, timber, petroleum, cotton, and palm oil. The access to the lucrative proceeds of these natural resources has been a contributory factor in the Ivorien crisis.
Laurent Gbagbo must be stopped
In response to the election of Ouattarra, the Chairman of ECOWAS, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, convened an ECOWAS meeting of ECOWAS Heads of government on December 7 2010in Abuja, where the leaders unanimously backed the President elect and asked Mr. Gbagbo to step aside. The African Union (AU) also sent an envoy, former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, to meet with and persuade the defeated President to step down, but that seems to have failed. After the report back of Mbeki, the AU announced its suspension of Cote d’Ivoire’s membership. Many other major powers, including multilateral agencies, are threatening other forms of sanctions if the Ivorian strong man continues to be obdurate and claims a hold on the presidency. The former university-lecturer-turned President has rebuffed all of these actions as “western intrusion”. He seems impervious to mounting international pressure and willing to risk an impending international isolation and internal conflict just to ensure that he defiantly clings to power.
Two issues come to my mind amidst this dangerous political drama. The first is the need for Nigeria to step up and re-energize her prominence in the affairs within the African continent. It falls on President Jonathan’s shoulders to rally around other African Heads of government to make it categorically clear in an ultimatum to Gbagbo that he cannot continue to hang onto power. Press releases and shuttle diplomacy can no longer suffice. And so, more needs to be done. The other issue is the need for politicians in Africa to understand the fundamental tenets of democracy.
Kenya was recently plunged into an avoidable conflict when Mwai Kibaki refused to allow his rival Raila Odinga to form a government, when it was crystal clear that he had been defeated. So did Zimbabwe, where the strong man Robert Mugabe lost the election but refused resign and allow his rival Morgan Tsangirai to take over. Enough of these, African strong men! These are exactly the kind of men the US President Obama says we do not need. Africa needs strong institutions instead.
African leaders must learn to accept defeat with equanimity and put national interest and continental prosperity above selfish quest for power.
To sit down with Laurent Gbagbo to consider a unity or coalition government as has been done in Zimbabwe and Kenya is tantamount to denying the democratic process and the legitimate voice of the Ivorian people expressed overwhelmingly on November 28. Africa must for once confirm to the world that we can get it right. The Cote d’Ivoire logjam must not be allowed to degenerate to war.
Uche Igwe is an Africa Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Visiting Scholar at the Africa Studies Program, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University. He contributed this piece from Washington DC, USA.