Elections in Côte d’Ivoire: Same plot, different ending?

Copyright 2011 Jessica Keralis

Add Laurent Gbagbo to a long list of heads of state who do not understand the concept of losing gracefully.

On November 28, 2010, opposition leader and former Ivorian prime minister Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner in a run-off election against incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo. Despite several incidents of violence, the election was largely considered to be free and fair. The UN’s Independent Electoral Commission announced Ouattara as the winner on December 2, but unfortunately, this was not good enough for Gbagbo. Immediately after the Commission’s announcement, Paul Yao N’Dre, the president of the country’s Constitutional Council (and an ally of Gbagbo), declared the results invalid and, the next day, proclaimed Gbagbo to be the winner of the election. The Council threw out half a million votes from seven regions in the north (Ouattara’s support base), stating that “[t]he irregularities are of such a nature that they invalidate the vote.” The result is, as usual, chaos: both Gbagbo and Ouattara have declared themselves president and taken the oath of office. The military has closed the borders and implemented an overnight curfew; international news sources are suspended. Although the UN, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the U.S., and France have all recognized Ouattara as the winner, Gbagbo insists that he won and proclaims that he is “not looking to be loved by them.” He retains control of the country’s military, and the golden rule of international politics is (as we all know) whoever has the guns makes the rules. Gbagbo has also demanded that the UN peacekeeping force, which is guarding Ouattara and his newly-appointed cabinet in a hotel in Abidjan, leave the country. Youssoufou Bamba, Ouattara’s appointed UN envoy, has appealed to the UN to take action, warning that Côte d’Ivoire is “on the brink of genocide.”

As the pressure, and violence, escalates, Ivorians are leaving the country in droves. As 2010 came to a close, over 18,000 refugees had fled to neighboring Liberia, Guinea, and Ghana. UNHCR estimates that 400-500 Ivorians cross the border into Liberia every day; 55% are women, and 62% are children. Families have reported walking several hours, even days, through the bush to get to barges that will take them to neighboring countries. No political alliance predominates: the group contains both Gbagbo’s and Ouattara’s supporters, who have said that they are seeking asylum due to fear of another civil war. Many refugees show up injured, malnourished, or ill with conditions such as malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrhea. Some have even reported being prevented from leaving the country by armed forces and having to travel extra distance to cross the border. UNHCR has spent $53 million to position aid and emergency services to assist up to 30,000 refugees, but they are struggling to deal with the influx of the displaced. Some houses have up to 20 family members crammed into one room. Others sleep in corridors, on verandas, or just outside.

Unfortunately, this kind of election fall-out is par for the course in Africa (and elsewhere); the world saw the same story in Zimbabwe and Kenya. What is different this time, however, is the response: African voices, in addition to international ones, are calling for Gbagbo to step down. ECOWAS has been attempting to negotiate a transfer of power. They have offered Gbagbo amnesty if he steps down, but if he does not, they will oust him by force. The outcome of this standoff will have significant implications for the future of African politics: if ECOWAS follows through and makes Gbagbo face the music, other leaders may think twice about ignoring election results. If they back down, however, and broker some kind of power-sharing agreement (à la Zimbabwe), then it will only reinforce the standard protocol of ignoring election results if you control the military. In addition to the political statement it will make, the ultimate result of the Ivorian election will determine the fate of a ballooning population of refugees whose memories of the country’s last civil war are all too fresh.

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