Ivory Coast: Africa's democracy lesson

A man walks through a ransacked market in Abidjan April 14, 2011
Image caption Ivory Coast got its elected leader, but not before a lot of destruction

After four months of post-election turmoil, Ivory Coast's elected leader Alassane Ouattara has finally taken office. Analyst Knox Chitiyo looks at what lessons can be learned from Ivory Coast for the next time there is a dispute election in Africa.

Ivory Coast, like most of Africa, has made huge progress in conducting elections over the past decade.

Although there are continuing challenges in the conduct of elections, the real problem is the immediate post-election period - the day after elections, particularly if the result is disputed.

Former President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to relinquish power after his election defeat in November 2010 is rightly seen as the chief cause of the suffering of the Ivorian people.

But he is not solely to blame; all the key electoral stakeholders made errors.

The UN and Ivorian Electoral Commission's mandate was to run the elections and declare a legitimate winner.

Image caption Laurent Gbagbo had already been in power for 10 years before the election

This function they performed well, announcing Mr Ouattara as the winner and president-elect.

All well and good. But swearing in Mr Ouattara as president at the Golf Hotel may have exceeded their mandate.

This rush to judgement was also replicated by the Constitutional Council which hurriedly voided thousands of votes cast in favour of Mr Ouattara and swore in Mr Gbagbo.

Although the council has the constitutional power to swear in a new president, it had no authority to re-inaugurate the losing candidate as the president.

Moreover, the presidential term limit is 10 years, a time frame which Mr Gbagbo, in power since 2000, had clearly exceeded.

All the stakeholders thus boxed themselves into a corner.

With neither man willing to budge and no higher authority available in Ivory Coast to decide and implement the decision, the stage was set for a violent showdown.

The lesson? Ivory Coast needs a higher, independent judicial body which has the mandate to resolve post- electoral disputes; and which has the tools to implement decisions.

And such a body must exist in other countries, too.

Squeezed by sanctions

The West African body Ecowas has been criticised for its perceived failure to resolve the Ivorian deadlock.

It is true that ultimately it was the military power of the pro-Ouattara FRCI/New Forces, the 9,000-strong UN mission in the country and French forces that ousted Mr Gbagbo.

But Ecowas sanctions had already eroded Mr Gbagbo's power.

Ivory Coast's use of the CFA franc, which it shares with seven other West African countries, and its participation in the regional central bank, made Mr Gbagbo highly vulnerable when the region handed over control of the Ivorian currency to his rival.

It became increasingly difficult for Mr Gbagbo to pay the civil service - and his soldiers.

It brought increasing hardship for the Ivorian people, but it made it clear that, without the financial wherewithal to pay his way, Mr Gbagbo's days were numbered. Non-recognition of Mr Gbagbo's representatives piled on the psychological pressure.

This shows that sanctions - especially "tight" sanctions applied by neighbouring countries - can work.

Gbagbo's antagonism

There are lingering questions regarding the management of the run-off; but Mr Gbagbo's refusal to accept electoral defeat, and his willingness to use force to stay in power was his undoing.

From the outset, and to their credit, Ecowas and the African Union recognised Mr Ouattara as the winner of the elections and insisted that Mr Gbagbo step down or face "legitimate force".

Mr Gbagbo's increasing intransigence and use of violence had already antagonised his neighbours.

Image caption After a week-long siege, Mr Ouattara's forces finally detained Mr Gbagbo in his residence

He was implicated in the arrest and executions of dozens of political opponents during 2000 and 2001; from 2005 until the 2007 peace deal, Mr Gbagbo had refused to hold elections; and November 2010 saw him refusing to acknowledge his electoral defeat.

With the AU and Ecowas taking an increasingly hard line against illegal takeovers and recalcitrant incumbents in recent years, the continent had to be seen to back its pledge to support democratic transitions of power - meaning Mr Gbagbo had to go.

Ivory Coast is a step change in Africa's support for electoral democracy and democratic transitions.

Over the past decade the tradition has been for power-sharing governments to resolve post-electoral disputes - as seen in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Power-sharing is an important way of resolving military conflict, but it does not always resolve political conflict.

Ivory Coast may mark a shift away from the power-sharing default setting, and back to the tradition of the electoral winner becoming the national leader and forming a government of their choice - either inclusive or single party government.

It is too early to pass a definitive judgement, but arguably Africa's commitment to a democratic transition in Ivory Coast means that, for now at least, the continent passed the democracy test in that country.

Niger's recent handover of power from a military junta to civilian leader Mahamadou Issoufou also makes April a good month for democratic transfers in sub- Saharan Africa.

No 'civilising mission'

But ultimately it was a military coalition which included the UN, the French Licorne Special Forces and the pro-Ouattara forces which brought Mr Gbagbo to heel.

Image caption Mr Ouattara says he will soon move into the presidential palace

After pro-Gbagbo forces were accused of shelling residential areas and targeting UN peacekeepers, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians under the Right to Protect (RTP) ideal, but there will continue to be questions about supposedly neutral UN forces taking sides in an internal conflict.

The use of "legitimate" and "limited" force for the protection of civilians in Ivory Coast and Libya is problematic, but one thing is clear - with millions of people displaced and increasing incidences of massacre, torture and rape of civilians, prompt action was needed to end the carnage.

Limited force should always be a last resort, but it was clear that it was needed in Ivory Coast to end the use of "overwhelming force" against civilians.

It is also clear that the UN mission in Ivory Coast will have to play a major role in stopping the current wave of reprisal attacks on former Gbagbo supporters; and in peace-building.

Ivory Coast also shows that while multinational military operations in partnership with African forces can work well, the continent needs to prioritise and build capacity in rapid reaction and long term African multinational forces for crisis situations.

Meanwhile, France and the UN would do well to avoid triumphalism and old-school "civilising mission" ideas.

Their forces played a major role in ousting Mr Gbagbo but they did not "save" Ivory Coast.

The country's people, in partnership with the region, the continent and the global community, saved Ivory Coast.

Knox Chitiyo is Africa Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think-tank.

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