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Did the world get it wrong in Ivory Coast?

Andrew Harding | 16:25 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

If you're interested in Ivory Coast, then I urge you to read this stubborn, provocative article. If you're interested in Africa, in conflict resolution, in the nuances and limitations of democracy, then take a moment to consider Thabo Mbeki's thoughts on how the world (allegedly) messed up in Ivory Coast. There's a lot I don't agree with here. But the questions he asks, or implies, are important.

I remember sitting in a restaurant in Abidjan a couple of months ago, viscerally aware that war was coming - was inevitable - and discussing with other journalists whether this was somehow acceptable, whether it was a price worth paying for democracy to prevail.

Fuelled by some decent French wine, the discussion churned on into the night.
The first round of the election had already confirmed that, after years of conflict and political foot-dragging, the country was fairly evenly split. Would a winner-takes-all result heal old wounds? Or would it reopen them? Was it still "too soon" for such an election, however carefully negotiated and monitored? Or can "excuses" always be found by those contemplating defeat?

To some these are absolute issues. For others, the defining issue was the unknown - the nature of the price Ivory Coast was about to pay. Could a short, surgical offensive (as if such things exist in places like this) remove Laurent Gbagbo, restore democracy, chasten other African throne-clingers, and put Ivory Coast back on the path to prosperity and peace? Or would war (I think we all assumed Gbagbo would lose it eventually) deepen those divisions and make reconciliation less likely in the long term?

These questions are still being answered, of course. My heart tells me Mr Mbeki is wrong. My head is still asking for more information.


  • Comment number 1.

    "My heart tells me Mr Mbeki is wrong. My head is still asking for more information."
    Mr. Harding, your self-righteousness is astounding.
    You came to Africa to play the White Man, but they are not your game.

  • Comment number 2.

    When it comes to pontificating on democracy the Europeans are like blinkered horses and the Americans are even worse. This is the stubborness that is more striking, rather than what Mr.Mbeki says. Can these people not see that in countries like Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, etc where the population is split on religious lines, it is impossible to have a simple first pass the post system. You would think that the British would at least be aware of this after their problems in Ulster. It would appear that although elections are a necessary evil, there needs to be some thought put into the way the country is governed and that this cannot be just Us or Them. At not far from 50-50 the losing side cannot be totally excluded from representation in the running of the state. So one way or another there has to be some sort of quota system for the selection of Ministers and the governing of the country. This has to be hammered out before the election goes ahead and safeguards put in place so that the new President doesn't then decide to revise the constitution to suit himself and his cronies. It is clear that the classic occidental democratic system will not work in such countries.

  • Comment number 3.

    Check this about African revolution.

  • Comment number 4.

    Pragmat, firstly, it is a very sweeping comment to say that Ivory Coast was split on religious lines. Yes, the southern population is predominantly Christian and the northern predominantly Muslim, but the split was based more on nationalist ideology. Outtara was prevented from entering the elections at the turn of the century due to his perceived Burkinabe status. Foreigners in Ivory Coast have great difficulty in achieving government office. I agree however with your point that some form of power share would be ideal, but when Mbeki says the right structures were not in place for an election, the truth is that Gbagbo prevented these structures form realisation. Throughout his ten-year tenure, he maintained a policy of Ivoirite that actively prevented any form of integration and deepened the ideological divide. The grounds on which Gbagbo repeatedly delayed elections were all self-serving, they were based on what he perceived as an inordinate amount of foreigners able to vote in the north, which may have prevented victory. On the subject of disarmament, whilst the Forces Nouvelles in the north were forced to disarm, which admittedly they did not do to a satisfactory degree, they cannot be expected to do so when a belligerent force backed by a seemingly endless dictatorship continued to hold arms. I was in Duekoue last summer where I was told I could buy an AK-47 for 8 dollars and that most people had them in their houses.
    If Gbagbo felt he had a legitimate cause for complaint about the running of the elections, his course of actions should not have been to defy international pressure, allow 3,000 to die and hundreds of thousands to become refugees, just to make a point about democracy (a notion he seems to have little grasp of). Why did he not cede power then take his complaints to an international court?
    Mbeki missed a vital point: the leader of the Constitutional Council, Yao N’Dre was Gbagbo’s Minster for the Interior until 2009 when Gbagbo moved him to the position which holds the power to have the final verdict on the election results. Some democracy.

  • Comment number 5.

    Part of the problem with western interference in African affairs is that very seldom does the United Nations or western countries understand the cultural and religious differences, the tribal distinctions that they are dealing with; therefore, it would be best to allow Africans to solve African problems. This is where Gaddafi was headed when he so much wanted to install a United States of Africa, which I hope may yet come about.
    Gbagbo dilly-dallied about an election, but when he failed to win, he appealed the result to the Supreme Court of the Ivory Coast. The Court threw out many contested votes and declared that Gbagbo had indeed won. I don't know about the Supreme Court in the Ivory Coast, whether it did the right thing, but the "world" should have done far more investigation than it did before implanting the pro-western, IMF-trained Quattara and all of this investigation should have been fully transparent.
    Did the world get it wrong?
    For the above reasons, I think so.

  • Comment number 6.

    Fred, I agree with you that to say that Ivory Coast is split 50-50 on religious grounds is rather too much of a sweeping statement. So lets just say that the minority (which various sources disagree upon) is a relatively large percentage and must be represented within government. It certainly seems that Gbagbo wanted to hold on to power at all costs, but what's new? It's Africa. I think the problem is that the Western powers think that they know best. They don't. But of course the incumbent only knows best for himself and his entourage. Deals have to be made to ensure that there is some hope for the people.

    Blueberry, its not the best time to be praising Ghaddafi, and to imply that the justice department in Ivory Coast was impartial is naive. But what you say about the west not understanding the cultures, tradition, etc in African countries is certainly true. The problem is they don't really care. They are generally more concerned about their own interests in those countries.

  • Comment number 7.

    At least 1,500 people have been killed and a million forced from their homes in Ivory Coast as authorities struggle to restore order following presidential elections that led to violence, lootings, rape and murder.

    Ivory Coast’s Constitutional Council, the body that certifies election results in the country, declared Laurent Gbagbo the winner based on valid votes cast, but the country’s electoral commission announced Alassane Outtara as the winner of the November poll - with 54% of the vote. This verdict was backed by the United Nations. Gbagbo, who had been president since 2000, refused to relinquish power, saying that voting in the north was rigged.

    The predominantly Muslim north largely backs Ouattara, a Muslim, while support for Gbagbo, an evangelical Christian, comes from the mainly Christian south. Fighting erupted as forces loyal to Ouattara fought to install their man, and Christians, who are associated with Gbabgo, have been particularly targeted; imams have reportedly called on Muslims to attack Christians. The fighting continued even after the arrest of Gbagbo on 11 April.

    Since late March churches in Ivory Coast have been vandalised and torched, and pastors and Christians have been kidnapped, beaten and killed. As a result of the violence, tens of thousands of people had to take refuge in churches, where they lacked adequate food, water, sanitation and medical care. In one incident, between 800 and 1,000 people who were seeking shelter at a Christian mission compound in Duékoué were killed, reportedly by descendants of immigrant Muslims from Burkina Faso loyal to Ouattara.

    While President Ouattara has ordered all soldiers to return to their barracks as he tries to restore normality after months of unrest, the security situation for Christians in the area remains extremely precarious.

    Did the world get it wrong about the Ivory Coast? As usual, yes!

  • Comment number 8.

    Of course President Mbeki is right. France has hoodwinked the world into believing its version of events. We will never know for sure who really won the election - an election that should not have been held under the existing conditions in the first place. As it stands, an illegality has been enforced as a violent victory and reall differences will continue to fester.

  • Comment number 9.

    There is a global proverb (not sure who started it) that observes: THE MOST SUCCESSFUL WARS ARE ALWAYS FOUGHT BY ARMCHAIR GENERALS.

    Let me add my two-cent slogan: THE MOST "SUCCESSFUL" GENERALS ALWAYS FIGHT LONG DISTANCE comfortably missing from smoking ruins of Abidjan -- armed with the usual "African" jingoism that have yet to win against the simple AK-47.

  • Comment number 10.

    Andrew, I wish you would remove those parentheses around allegedly in your article. As a journalist it is important to consider the credibility of the source when reporting. If one considers that the source of the "benefit of hindsight" article you quote is Thabo Mbeki, whose lets-leave-them-be policy decisions in South Africa contributed to the continued ruin of Zimbabwe, then one would be quite right in questioning his article. Certainly some of the questions he poses are worth considering but his argument in essence has always been it'll sort itself out if the West doesn't get involved.

    What credible alternative would he have proposed and would it have prevented what happened? Likely not, according to his track record when he had the power as the SA president to make those decisions himself.

    Sizwe (South African blogger)

  • Comment number 11.

    @Sizwe (#10) - think you've got it spot on. Thabo Mbeki's contribution to Southern Africa's stability, let alone that of Africa as a whole is questionable. He really had the opportunity to make a positive impact during his tenure but in my opinion failed miserably. And this despite the domino effect of Zimbabwe's crisis into his own country - not much authority to be credited to him with respect to his opinion in that article, given the empirical evidence at least.


  • Comment number 12.

    I have heard that International Criminal Court is examining whether the massacres in Duekoue should be reclassified as genocide due to widespread and systematic killings of ethnic nature.

    Overall it has been estimated that 3000 people (BBC figures) have died in recent months.

    Yet Mr Harding you are still wondering whether it was "worth it"?


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