Kenya PM Raila Odinga meets Laurent Gbagbo to discuss solutions to Cote d’Ivoire’s political paralysis
Laurent Gbagbo became president in 2000 on the back of a popular street movement after disputed elections. At the moment it seems unlikely that he’ll leave in the same way. The lack of a popular outcry after his widely-recognised election defeat (by more than eight percentage points) to opposition politician Alassane Ouattara has certainly helped strengthen his hand and confounded those hoping for an Ivorian solution to an Ivorian crisis.
It probably comes down to a number of factors; bloody crackdowns on what protests there have been, a widespread fatigue after ten years of crisis, the concentration of Gbagbo support in Abidjan – the country’s only major city – and the incumbent’s control of the state propaganda machine.
So, what next? Gbagbo has publicly said that talk of a military intervention to oust him makes no sense when you study the African political map and ask how many decent elections actually take place. You’d have to intervene in almost every country he says. So why are the Ivory Coast elections causing such a stir? While other elections have certainly been worse and received barely a whisper of criticism, there seems to be a remarkable international will to see the independent election commission’s results respected. Not since the Second World War, one western diplomat told me, had the world been in such strong agreement on one thing.
There were a number of factors that were special about these elections. They were one of the most expensive ever held per voter, coming five years late and billed as the real watershed moment for a country emerging from its worst decade since independence. Secondly, the United Nations had a unique role in overseeing and certifying elections, transporting all the results sheets, many of them all the way from the polling stations to Abidjan, and receiving a copy of all the 20,000-plus results sheets. Within several hours of the close of polling, the UN say they knew Ouattara had won.
So why in a nation about to close a chapter on a decade of strife, did Gbagbo apparently fix the verdict in the face of an international community that had the results, and that had been present in large numbers on the ground throughout the country? Partly the international outcry was unexpected; former colonial power France opting for stability and the protection of its own economic interests could have let Gbagbo stay on. The African Union and ECOWAS could have been expected to take sides with one of their own, who has played the imperialists vs. Africa card on a number of occasions over the past ten years. Maybe Gbagbo thought he could escape from the zero of losing an election, to coming out with at least something; a share of government posts, whatever the risk to the country’s stability.
Two recent developments on the continent have influenced the crisis; the rise of international law and post-election power-sharing. On the latter, Gbagbo thought mediators would offer him some sort of deal in which he stayed on as president, while Ouattara would be prime minister or vice-president. Unfortunately for him, the African Union sent the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga to mediate; a man with personal experience of such a deal and who immediately dismissed the idea. Secondly there’s the fear that Gbagbo, or at least his more hard-core allies, could face international prosecution for some of the atrocities committed during the Ivorian crisis. Leaving power has become a riskier business in Africa, and Nigeria’s offer to Gbagbo of amnesty and a luxurious exile wasn’t quite as attractive post-Charles Taylor.
Western diplomats say the only way this crisis can end is with Ouattara as president. But can Laurent Gbagbo succeed? Will the world lose interest, fail to back up their words with action and accept a fudge? If this was just about Gbagbo and Ivory Coast that could well be possible. But with around twenty elections in Africa this year, the crisis has become a point of principal; success would establish a roadmap for future election disputes and make other incumbents think twice. Failure would show others that even in the most-supervised, transparent conditions, you can still fix an election, even after the results have been given, and get away with it.
John James is the BBC correspondent in Ivory Coast and studied African Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.
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