Côte d'Ivoire: the need to reach beyond the theatre of elections

The human security outlook deteriorates in Côte d'Ivoire, and "free and fair" elections are shown again to be far from a sufficient condition for democratic transition
Caroline Wells
1 March 2011

While the world’s attention shifts to the North of the African continent, the political crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has faded into the background, but remains unresolved. Entering its third month of political stalemate, the country was high on the agenda as members of the African Union (AU) General Assembly met on 30-31 Jan. in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In light of the disputed presidential elections, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) has agreed on the creation of a ‘high level panel’ headed by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and made up of Presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, South Africa and Tanzania. They have been tasked with devising a way out of the impasse within a month. The summit has urged a ‘negotiated solution’ to the conflict, but unity amongst its participants is fragmenting.


Having been delayed six times since 2005 the first round of Ivorian elections took place on 31 October. Following the result - in which the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, secured 38.3% of the vote, Alassane Ouattara, the leader of the Rassemblement des républicains (RDR), gained 32.1% and ex-President Henri Konan Bédié received 25.2%—a run-off between Mr Gbagbo and Mr Ouattara was scheduled for 28 November. This went ahead despite electoral violence and inflammatory comments by both candidates with electoral observers reporting that the election had largely been free and fair.  The Commission Electorale Independent (CEI) declared Alassane Ouattara winner with 54.1% of the vote versus 45.9% for the incumbent Laurence Gbagbo.

The results were disputed by Gbagbo’s supporters who claimed electoral fraud in Ouattara’s heartland of support in the north. Alongside these protests the president of the Constitutional Council, Paul Yao N’dre – largely viewed as a Gbagbo sympathizer – overruled the Commission, annulling all votes from seven northern departments and declared Gbagbo winner with 51.45% of the vote versus 48.55% for Alassane Outtara. Both candidates proceeded to declare themselves president, underwent simultaneous inaugurations and began forming parallel administrations.

Violence erupted on 16 December as Ouattara demonstrators fired on security forces backed by Gbagbo. Since then, more than 296 have been killed in ensuing clashes between rival supporters. There have been allegations of severe human rights violations (the UN has been blocked from investigating sites of alleged mass graves), incidents of continuing hate speech and UN officials have said they are ‘gravely concerned’ by both sides’ adoption of ethnicity for political purposes. The UNHCR has declared some 35,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and have warned of a degenerating refugee crisis. Some 38,000 people have fled to neighbouring Liberia and 600 Ivorians a day continue to cross the border.


The international community (with the UN, EU and US at its fore) has repeatedly condemned Gbagbo’s refusal to relent power, declaring Ouattara the election’s legitimate winner and demanding that Gbagbo step down. The AU, the UN and the regional grouping, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have all since suspended Ivorian membership from their organisations and have imposed economic and travel sanctions. ECOWAS, supported by the AU, has already threatened military intervention by foreign troops to restore democracy and, while the likelihood of a full-fledged display of ‘legitimate force’ is not yet certain, the UN has agreed to bolster its original 9000-strong force with a further 2000 troops along with two attack helicopters.

For his part, Mr Gbagbo continues to retain control of the state’s administrative apparatus. As key international banks suspended business in Abidjan, the Gbagbo administration took control of operations by decree on 17 February. Gbagbo retains full control of tax revenues, customs duties and income from cocoa, coffee and oil production – worth an estimated $180m per month. In efforts to deprive Mr Gbagbo of these sources of income, Mr. Ouattara appealed for a one-month suspension of cocoa deliveries to world markets. Côte d'Ivoire is the world’s top producer of the crop making up a third of the market. With six cocoa exporting houses currently heeding calls for a strike, industry sources say that its effects, alongside the international sanctions imposed, are beginning to bite. There have also been warnings, however, on the long-term effects of such measures on the 700,000 Ivorians whose livelihoods depend on the crop. As an estimated 30,000 tons of cocoa remain on farms (due for export in the 2010/11 season), hundreds of local farmers have protested against EU sanctions, burning bags of their crop against EU policy. Locals have also warned that the smuggling of cocoa has surged.


While Mr Ouattara remains barricaded in the Golf Hotel, Abidjan, protected by 900 UNOCI troops, Gbagbo continues to occupy the Presidential palace. He has demanded the complete withdrawal of UN troop presence which, according to him, is acting in complicity with the rebels, has lost the confidence of civilians and is violating its neutrality by interfering in the state’s internal affairs. UN and French peacekeeping forces are increasingly being drawn into the conflict as the violence escalates and there have been reports of Gbagbo loyalists shooting at UN convoys and ransacking provision trucks.

The danger remains that the crisis will degenerate again into civil war. Following an attempted coup d’etat by a section of the Ivorian army in September 2002, an on-off civil war raged in Côte d'Ivoire until the signing of the Ouagadougou Political Accord (OPA) in March 2007. The rebels which later united under the Force Nouvelles (FN) had failed to gain control of the state, but they had captured key northern cities effectively dividing the country between North and South. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) both sides retain the capacity for violence, albeit asymmetrically. Gbagbo remains bolstered by the support of army chief Philippe Mangou and retains control of an elite 4000-strong force. ‘Well-trained, -paid and fiercely loyal to Mr Gbagbo’ this force has ‘everything to lose’ should he fall from power and ‘would be a formidable barrier to any ECOWAS intervention force’.

On the other hand, the FN, still controlling the north since the war and loyal to Mr Ouattara, have said they are on maximum alert and are ready to fight alongside any ECOWAS intervention force. As a rebel arm, the FN has worked to re-establish itself as a northern government with its own bureaucracy and provision of services. Its leader Guillaume Soro has engaged politically, having acted, until the October election, as Prime minister alongside President Gbagbo. Crucially, however, the process of demobilising, disarming and reintegrating rebel and militia forces (DDR) remains incomplete. On the eve of the election, Human Rights Watch lamented the failures of the DDR process in Côte d'Ivoire with many thousand yet to even enter the process. Citing a ‘lack of will’ and mistrust between State militias and the FN rebels, officials denounced the demobilization ceremonies as a ‘charade’ and reported that since 2007 UNOCI had only collected a total of 715 arms from rebels and militia forces combined. Commentators urged that Ivorian disarmament before people went to the polls was critical: cases in the Republic of Congo, the DRC and Angola demonstrated the dangers of proceeding with elections prior to completing disarmament processes.


Hitherto, mediation efforts since the election have made no progress. In early December, the AU’s attempts at talks via former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, produced no results. A follow-up mission comprising the president’s of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, as well as a visit by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, got no further. Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, the current designated AU official mediator, accused of bias by Gbagbo, has also proved ineffective in bringing the two sides to talk.

Meanwhile, Gbagbo is doing all that he can to draw out the process and prolongation of the crisis has seemed to work in his favour.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for a united approach to the crisis urging states at the AU summit to ‘preserve our unified position, act together, and stand firm against Mr Gbagbo’s attempt to hang onto power’. Nigeria is one state that maintains this line, still denouncing Gbagbo’s intransigence and pressing the case for military intervention. ‘It is clear,’ the country’s foreign minister Henry Odein Ajumogobia wrote, ‘that Mr. Laurent Gbagbo is determined to defy and treat the entire international community with absolute disdain. In the interest of global peace and security and in order to preserve and deepened (sic) the growing democratic culture in Africa, he cannot, he must not be allowed to prevail.

But the longer the crisis is drawn, the more divisions amongst Gbagbo’s opposition have fostered and the once unequivocal support for Ouattara has waned. Gbagbo has received implicit backing from Zimbabwe and Angola which have denounced the impartiality of the international community and the proposed intervention force by ECOWAS.

Uganda too has broken ranks with the initial AU line. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, alongside Jacob Zuma of South Africa has argued against the UN’s ‘simple’ conclusion that Ouattara is the President-elect of Côte d'Ivoire and has urged that the vote be investigated. Tamale Mirundi, the Ugandan presidential spokesman, spoke to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper, quoting Museveni: ‘Uganda differs with the UN and international community on Ivory Coast. There is need for a serious approach that involves investigating the [electoral] process, including registration of voters and who voted. There should be investigations, not just declaring who has won.’ ‘If elections are contested’, he continued, ‘you don’t just declare one candidate a winner. You must investigate thoroughly what went wrong.’

The AU position seems increasingly divided. With states ‘back peddling’ on their initial, more unified position, the AU has been forced to pull back on the severity of its demands. A comparison of AU statements on the crisis is illustrative. The communiqué of the 252nd meeting of the AU’s PSC on 10 Dec. 2010 which ‘Strongly urges Mr. Laurent Gbagbo to respect the results of the election and to facilitate, without delay, the transfer of power to the President-Elect’ stands in contrast to its most recent statements. While reiterating its recognition of Ouattara as President-Elect, the Council’s most recent communiqué of 28 Jan. makes no specific demands of Gbagbo, and states, instead, that it ‘reaffirms the necessity of a rapid peaceful solution which will allow for the preservation of democracy and peace, through the respect for the will of the Ivorian people, as expressed on 28 November 2010.’ Until now, the AU has demanded Gbagbo’s departure, but Jean Ping, head of the AU said he was ‘no longer sure things should be presented in these terms’


Why, we might ask, are sub-Saharan Africans not rallying the same calls for change that are ringing through the cities in the north of the continent? The region certainly has its fair share of leaders whose long years in power are frustrating and resented. Côte d'Ivoire’s current battle for the Presidency, however, is more complex than one of a ‘dictator’ hanging onto power.

The causes of Ivorian tensions are broader than immutable tribal and sectarian differences. As convincingly argued by Patrick Meehan for openDemocracy, explanations of the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire are often too narrow – degenerating into culturalist theses that cite ethnicity and religion as the cause of all Ivorian ills. The fact remains, though, that Ivorian identity and questions of citizenship have been central to all elections in Côte d'Ivoire. While Tunisians, Egyptians and the ‘domino’ states that they have inspired, have rallied together in nationalist spirit, the persisting notion of Ivorité politicizing ethnic grievances, serves to exacerbate poor social and economic conditions, but leaves Ivorians divided, un-united in any demands to improve them.

Ivorité (literally, Ivorian-ness) emerged as the dominant political discourse of the 1990s defining southerners as ‘authentic’ Ivorians in opposition to ‘circumstantial’ Ivorians the, mostly Muslim, immigrants and their descendents from neighbouring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso. Ivorians vote to improve standards of living and education, but voters are also reliant on the candidate that will meet and safeguard, their interests of identity. In many ways, this is the tragedy of politics in some parts of Africa – while the tropes of a Western-style election are played out, a harmful political culture of galvanizing, manipulating ethnic sympathies follows in attempt to gain or retain power.

The role of Ouattara in Ivorian politics is indicative of the garnering of ethno-politicized resentments on both sides. In 1995, President Henri Konan Bédié found himself in a potential electoral battle against Ouattara. In actions that were perceived as anti-northern, he adopted the concept of Ivorité, drawing on the supposed Burkinabé nationality of at least one of his parents, to challenge Ouattara’s attempts at the Presidency. He was excluded from the process in both 1995 and 2000. Currently, under the Ivorian Constitution, Article 35 continues to stress the importance of Ivorité stating that to sit as President of the Republic, a candidate ‘must be Ivorian by birth, born of a father and of a mother themselves Ivorian by birth. He must never have renounced the Ivorian nationality. He must never have had [prévaloir] another nationality.’ This clause has long sparked controversy: the debate over ‘le et et le ou’, referring to the necessity of having one or both Ivorian parents to legitimately stand has, in the past, dominated discussion in all circles of Ivorian society.

Since the late 1990s, Ouattara and his supporters have inverted the concept Ivorité to convert the latent discontent in the north into their own ethnicised support base. According to Francis Akindès, an academic at the University of Bouaké ‘opposition between pro- and anti-Ouattarists was developed around differentiated constructions of ADO’s [Ouattara’s] identity in the imagination of the people’. Ivorité gave the people of the south a rhetoric through which to express their fears against excessive migration and, at the same time, encouraged the peoples of the North to organize politically in order to resist what they considered to be ‘the spiral of a process of exclusion.’

Successive governments under Bédié, Guéi and Gbagbo have blamed Ouattara for stirring trouble from his support base in the north. Outtara, on the other hand, is regarded as a defender of this xenophobia. ‘While for his opponents,’ Akindès continues, ‘Ouattara is the prototype of the “false Ivorian” who is claiming something for which he has no right, for the inhabitant of the North he is symbolic of their loss of status as citizens having been constantly deprived of his civic rights by governments in the hands of “people from the South”’.

In recent weeks, there have been increasing protests on both sides of the political divide. Tensions are simmering along the buffer zone between North and South of the country and fighting in the town of Duékoué in the West has exacerbated long-standing tensions between the Malinké and Guéré communities. Predominantly linked to the ownership of land, these tensions are increasingly politicized in the current climate with the Malinké considered to be supporters of Ouattara and the Guéré supporters of Gbagbo.


What, in this, can we say about the nature of democracy? These elections might have been termed (and accepted by the West) as ‘free and fair’, but is this politicization of people’s grievances liberating? A ‘theatre’ of democracy, one might argue, as leaders cling to power via the manipulation of delicate vulnerabilities. And why, as both governments and their oppositions adopt this process, is the West so quick to adopt a winner; to claim ‘our man’? Do we really ‘want’ either?

2011 will be a big year for African democracy. For some African statesmen, the political crisis of democracy in Côte d'Ivoire has serious implications as it ‘is likely to disrupt the trend toward democracy in the sub region and create a dangerous precedent for a continent in which twenty presidential elections are to hold within the next eighteen months.’ For Africans, setting the right example in a fellow nation prior to elections in Nigeria, Benin, Chad, Madagascar, Zambia, Cameroon, the DRC, Liberia and Gabon, among others, is of the utmost importance.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga argues that Africa will never have a stable political base unless a democratic culture of ceding power is internalised. Speaking at the joint meeting of the PSC on 28 Jan., he urged Gbagbo and Ouattara to negotiate ‘face to face’ arguing that Africa ‘stands on a knife’s edge’ - that inaction on Côte d'Ivoire was perilous for the continent. The Ivorian crisis ‘symbolises a great tragedy that seems to have befallen Africa,’ he said, ‘whereby some incumbents are not willing to give up power if they lose’. This refusal was ‘disturbing’ in the case of Côte d'Ivoire, he argued, ‘since there was never internal, regional and international unanimity among independent institutions about the outcome of elections in Africa’. While perhaps fitting for Côte d'Ivoire, one cannot help but hear these words in the context of Odinga’s home state of Kenya; the 2007 election crisis and the part Odinga currently plays in the power-sharing agreement that followed.

The AU’s approach is that ‘this is an African crisis and only Africa can find a durable solution which will serve peace’. But Africa’s states are divided over how to approach the dilemma. Prolonging indecision serves only to further divide opinion. Meanwhile the humanitarian situation within Côte d'Ivoire is deteriorating. Two Presidents sworn in, defending the identities of a divided nation. What can a future settlement looks like? Certainly, the recent ‘model’ solutions for this sort of impasse have seen crises settled in the Kenyan and Zimbabwe power sharing arrangements. But these have merely allowed incumbents to remain in the power they sought.

On the other hand, the statesmen and women engaged in addressing Africa’s complex politics deal with delicate situations that involve avoiding much greater disasters. ‘Non-Africans only think of democracy’, laments Jean Ping, head of the AU, ‘Africans are concerned about democracy and peace; their continent being afflicted by conflict and civil war.’ Despite dropping off the front-page news, the potential in Côte d'Ivoire for things to get a whole lot worse is very real. Certainly the five-member panel about to embark on its mission will be constrained by the fact that both sides of this dispute are armed, determined to come out as victor and have already begun to battle it out.

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