The Election Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire

Côte d’Ivoire remains locked in a precarious political standoff, with incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refusing to cede office to political rival Alassane Ouattara, despite preponderant evidence that the latter won the November 28 presidential runoff election. After the Independent Electoral Commission announced a 54 to 46 percent outcome in favor of Ouattara, the country’s Constitutional Council, at the behest of Gbagbo, overruled the commission, annulling results in nine northern precincts and giving Gbagbo a 51 to 49 percent victory. Both men have subsequently sworn themselves in as president in separate ceremonies, and each has begun to appoint cabinet members.

Gbagbo’s postelection power play has been neither subtle nor sophisticated. He summarily dismissed the findings of the Ivoirian electoral commission, which as incumbent, he was responsible in establishing. When his initial bid to the Constitutional Council to annul results in four northern precincts on the basis of fraud proved insufficient to tip the balance in his favor, he added five more to the list.

Gbagbo has incurred the near universal condemnation and censure of the regional and international community. Western leaders, including U.S. president Barack Obama and French president Nicolas Sarkozy have congratulated Alassane Ouattara on his victory. The European Union has announced the possibility of targeted sanctions against individuals who obstruct the electoral process, and the World Bank has warned that continued intransigence will put development assistance flows at serious risk. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon has recognized and endorsed the electoral commission’s announcement of Ouattara’s victory. China has said that it will respect the sovereignty of the Ivoirian government but will back efforts of the African Union to mediate. The African Union, for its part, quickly dispatched former South African president Thabo Mbeki to Abidjan to try to break the standoff. Mbeki left two days later, unsuccessful, urging that “every effort should be made to ensure that the transition to democracy succeeds.” Subsequently, the African Union went further, issuing a statement that calls for “respect for the outcome of the presidential election as proclaimed by the Independent Electoral Commission.” West African leaders, joined by Mbeki, have convened an emergency meeting of the regional grouping ECOWAS to determine a way forward. ECOWAS too has endorsed the findings of the electoral commission and called for Gbagbo to resign.

Some 20 people have been killed in postelection violence, according to Amnesty International. Four were killed when government security forces raided Ouattara’s party offices in Abidjan on December 1. The Liberian government reports an influx of Ivoirians crossing the border, seeking refuge from a possible resurgence in violence.

Q1: What is Gbagbo thinking?

A1: In the first instance, Gbagbo may have been taken by surprise by the opposition’s victory, underestimating the level of resentment among Ivoirians against his extended stay in office and failing to anticipate the heavy swing by supporters of Henri Konan Bedié, a contender in the first round of elections whose base lies in the country’s south and central regions, to back the “northern” candidate Ouattara in the runoff. The ham-handedness of Gbagbo’s reversal of the results suggests that he may not have felt the need for more subtle forms of manipulation in the run-up to the election. He may too have counted on the African Union’s traditional predilection to support the status quo and its unwillingness to speak out too forcefully against incumbent leaders or electoral malfeasance.

Now, with regional and international censure mounting against him, Gbagbo most likely calculates that by maintaining an unapologetic vice grip on the incumbency he will force a negotiated power-sharing arrangement that will leave him, if not fully in control, at least at the table and in a position to continue to exert and expand his own influence and that of his allies in government. In this he can draw inspiration from Zimbabwe in 2008 and Kenya in 2007, where the international community, lacking adequate leverage and fearing mounting levels of civil unrest and violence, abandoned aspirations for democratic transition and settled instead for government by negotiation. In fact, the Ivoirian government itself has been since 2003 an ostensible coalition government, facilitated first by France and then by Burkina Faso president Blaise Campaoré who sought to avert a continuing crisis.

Gbagbo may reckon that mounting levels of violence will play to his favor, since international aversion to civil war may in the end trump democratic considerations and force a compromise solution that ultimately disenfranchises the majority of Ivoirians. For Ouattara supporters, violence will be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it may play to Gbagbo’s hand; on the other, they may see it as the only way to galvanize international intervention as Gbagbo seeks to entrench his position in the presidential palace.

Q2: Is a return to civil war possible?

A2: Gbagbo has taken a dangerous gamble. In the current context, a return to civil war in Côte d’Ivoire is a very real risk, with a strong possibility that conflict will be far more violent and costly than in 2002–2003. The crisis in Côte d’Ivoire never fully degenerated into the all-out violence that wracked neighboring Sierra Leone or Liberia. It was instead largely frozen in a situation of “neither peace nor war” maintained by a UN peacekeeping operation deployment (UNOCI) of some 8,000 troops and a buffer zone between north and south maintained by UNOCI and a deployment of French soldiers (5,300 at its height) under Operation Licorne. Ten years ago, most Ivoirians were shocked and saddened that the country, which had once been touted as an “oasis of stability” in a continent wracked by war and military coups, could disintegrate in political violence and fracture so badly along ethnic and regional lines. Since then, however, Ivoirians have become more battle hardened and cynical, with divisions within the country increasingly polarized, exacerbated by Gbagbo’s repeated election delays, the utter failure of national leadership and reconciliation, and continuing inflow of arms to all sides despite a UN arms embargo and efforts at disarmament. The country’s military forces are only nominally integrated, and a proliferation of militias in north and south raise the possibility of localized violence that may escalate. General Philippe Mangou, head of the national armed forces, has sworn his allegiance to President Gbagbo; leaders of the former rebel group Forces Nouvelles have declared their willingness to fight if Ouattara gives the word.

Q3: What role is there for the international community?

A3: Côte d’Ivoire’s current crisis is a significant and fundamental test of the resolve, leverage, and integrity of the African Union (AU). It is also an opportunity for the organization to exert global leadership—by drawing China, Russia, and other reluctant states into an international consensus position—and to live up more fully to the principles on which the organization was founded. The AU must do all it can to press for Gbagbo’s resignation and resist internal pressures to go for a power-sharing deal. The violation of democratic process and principle in the current crisis has been too flagrant: not only will negotiations with Gbagbo fundamentally undermine the AU’s credibility for future mediation efforts, but a political compromise is unlikely to buy time, peace, or acceptance from the Ivoirian people. Gbagbo has sent emissaries to neighboring African states, almost certainly seeking to plead his case and sow the seeds for possible divisions within ECOWAS and the AU. Gbagbo knows that there are any number of African leaders who are reluctant to question the legitimacy of an incumbent president or question a flawed electoral process.

ECOWAS and the AU should press upon Gbagbo that he faces increasing isolation and that the country risks suspension from both organizations. The United States and broader international community should seek to support and amplify the voice of the AU and West African leadership in pressing Gbagbo to respect the findings of the electoral commission. The United States should join with the European Union to up the pressure on Gbagbo and cohorts with the possibility of targeted sanctions and further isolation and should impress upon AU and ECOWAS the importance of this moment for the two organizations’ global leadership and credibility.

A return to conflict in Côte d’Ivoire could have devastating regional consequences, with the possibility of destabilizing outflows of refugees and economic impacts on neighboring countries that rely on the country for goods, jobs, and access to the port in Abidjan. Côte d’Ivoire was a critical piece in the regional “conflict system” that engulfed Liberia and Sierra Leone from the mid-1990s, with arms, young men, and proxy militias moving fluidly across borders, and instability in one metastasizing to broader regional insecurity. Both Sierra Leone and Liberia remain vulnerable, despite major international investments in UN peacekeeping missions and development assistance, and neighboring Guinea narrowly escaped a violent postelection meltdown just two months ago. Russia has reportedly objected to the UN Security Council weighing in on election results in a sovereign country. Ivoirians, African leadership, and the broader international community must make the case that Gbagbo’s continued intransigence and flouting of institutions that he himself helped create represent a very real threat to regional peace and security.

Jennifer G. Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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