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The Ivory Coast: A Turning Point for West Africa?

8 minute read
Johnny Dwyer

It was a remarkable moment, even in the bizarre, tortured political drama that has been Ivory Coast’s first presidential election in a decade. Earlier this month as a spokesman for the country’s Independent Electoral Commission prepared to read the partial tallies from the November vote live on Ivoirian television, a supporter for then incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo interrupted the broadcast and forcibly tore the results from the officials hands.

The incident provided a telling glimpse into how passionately defiant Gbagbo and his supporters remain in the face of the current political reality in the Ivory Coast (or the Cote d’Ivoire, as it is officially known): by international consensus Gbagbo lost the election to his opponent — and one-time political ally — Alassane Ouattara. Electoral reality notwithstanding, Gbagbo’s intransigence has violent implications not only for the Ivory Coast but repercussions for a region inhabited by about 300 million people.

(See TIME’s photos of the contested election in Ivory Coast.)

“Beyond Cote d’Ivoire, the way this crisis will be solved will affect the future of democratic elections in Africa,” says an Ivoirian executive who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for reprisals. With elections slated in the coming year for Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia and potentially Niger, he says, “The democratic process has to win.”

Nearly a month after his supporter interrupted the televised tally, Gbagbo’s defiance hasn’t softened. If anything, his supporters appear to be pushing the nation closer to civil war with a United Nations-backed force caught in the middle. On Tuesday, a delegation of presidents from Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone representing ECOWAS (Economic Organization of West African States) arrived to negotiate Gbagbo’s departure and, presumably, reiterate stark threat issued last week by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan: step down or we will install your opponent through military force. Despite the unprecedented warning, the delegation left Abidjan with little more than the assurance that Gbagbo would see them again. As if to punctuate the delegation’s visit, pro-Gbagbo mobs have targeted U.N. convoys with at least two attacks, in one incident firing on vehicles, in another torching one truck and wounding a peacekeeper with a machete.

(See TIME’s report from Abidjan about the disputed election.)

For the State Department, which has consistently pushed for elections in Ivory Coast, the developments are troubling. “The peaceful resolution of this crisis [is] smack in the middle of the President’s first priority and his policy to all of Africa, which is free and transparent democratic elections.” said Deputy Assistant Secretary William Fitzgerald for the State Department’s Bureau African Affairs. On Wednesday afternoon, the State Department disclosed that an RPG hit the U.S. embassy in Abidjan last week. More than half of the American embassy staff has left the capital of Ivory Coast under a “voluntary departure” while the remaining diplomatic contingent is preparing to evacuate, if necessary, according to a State Department spokesman.

Since the death of Ivory Coast’s post-colonial strongman, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in 1993, electoral crises in Abidjan have followed familiar plot points: an election produces a popular nominee for the presidency, the incumbent leader refuses to step down in the face of the results, violent clashes force a mediation between the political parties. The principal players in the power have changed little. The two men at the center of today’s crisis — Gbagbo and Ouattara — have appeared opposite one another in the Ivoirian political drama since Houphouet-Boigny’s death.

(See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.)

But, with entrance of ECOWAS as the potential military enforcer of the elections results changes the storyline for Ivory Coast and for the region. In the past, ECOWAS has interceded only in military crises — Sierra Leone and Liberia — to allow for a political solution. In Ivory Coast, the reverse is true. ECOWAS is threatening military force in response to what is a political crisis — and that raises unprecedented scenarios.

Elections in West Africa have been a bit of gambit in the post-colonial era. They are intended to provide for a bloodless transfer of power. But they have also presaged civil war. Both Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh used contested elections as a platform to launch armed revolutions. And both men eventually faced down ECOWAS-sponsored military forces after their rebel armies proved to be more bent on brutality and theft, than on restoring electoral democracy. ECOWAS’s military engagement in both countries was indecisive. The force, ECOMOG, not only suffered staggering casualties in both conflicts, it also became embroiled in the morass of lawlessness of each civil war, accused of human rights violations, looting and even of arming rebel factions. (Liberians joked the acronym stood for Every Car or Moveable Object Gone.)

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A troubling development in the Ivoirian crisis has been the recruitment of mercenaries from Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has warned against former combatants in her country’s civil war crossing the border to fight in Ivory Coast. According to former commanders for Charles Taylor, Liberians fighters marginalized after the civil war there ended in 2003 are flocking to both sides of the crisis. Recruitment has split along ethnic lines, with members of Krahn tribe joining Gbagbo’s forces and Gio and Mano fighters aligning with Ouattara. “Right now most of those guys are hungry: looking for job, looking for money,” says a Liberian commander who chose not to join the mercenaries.

The Ivory Coast is a diverse nation of more than 20 million people, not only in terms of indigenous ethnic groups, but also with a large migrant population from neighboring countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Liberia as well as large populations of Ghanaians and Nigerians. In the past, Ggabo has leveraged xenophobia against presumed “foreigners” to rally his base including an extremist militia allegedly tied to human rights abuses, the Young Patriots. “I don’t like to present it in that light, but it’s true, there’s an ethnic alignment, there are people from the Southern part who are from Gbagbo’s region and these are the ones now who are really controlling the army, ” says the Ivoirian executive.

(See how Ivory Coast is trying to break a bloody cycle.)

Diplomats, however, are cautious about the specter of another ethnic conflict in Africa. The State Department, for one, does not see an ethnic element to crisis. “This is not an ethnic issue; this is not a religious issue; this a political issue,” Deputy Assistant Secretary Fitzgerald said.

But one political scientist living in Abidjan, also fearful to speak on the record, sees ethnic tension and politics as inseparable. “The political use of these grievances has exposed the problem in a disproportionate way and created resentment between the North and the South, eventually leading to the rebellion,” he says.

There are signs of hope for elections the region. Guinea, which conducted its first democratic election in 50 years of independence, inaugurated President Alpha Conde last week after a fiercely contested runoff. The political parties in that election clung to ethnic lines — and there was scattered violence after the final results came in — but, the loser, Cellou Dalien Diallo, accepted the results paving way for a peaceful transfer of power. “The leadership is critical [for West Africa]” the Ivoirian executive says. “To have a political establishment that decides, no matter what happens they will put the country first… [then] we can defend ourselves against the leadership curse.”

(See more on the Ivory Coast election’s impact on African democracy.)

However, there are no such signs from Gbagbo. With his isolation, the situation for Ivoirians grows more desperate. Food prices in Abidjan have jumped with the skittish suppliers charging more to bring food into the capital. While one resident who spoke with TIME, noted a noticeable drawdown of military forces and roadblocks set up by Gbagbo’s militia, the Young Patriots, gunshots still ring out through the night. Strategic locations — such as the TV station — remain heavily fortified by military positions. Last week, Gbagbo supporters blocked a United Nations convoy from investigating a location suspected of being a mass grave.

And, as the ECOWAS emissaries departed, Gbagbo made his position clear. An aide of the former president threatened to expel ambassadors for countries — including the United States, France and Nigeria — who have recognized his opponent.

The State Department viewed Gbagbo’s statements as a sign of weakness, rather than strength. “He’s making a lot of threats and I think he realizes that his time in office is limited and that the pressure’s getting to him,” said Fitzgerald.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

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