Côte d’Ivoire: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


August 10, 2011 20:09 EDT

Charles A. Thiemele analyzes the potentially critical implications of Côte d’Ivoire’s recent election.

Reading the current coverage of Côte d’Ivoire’s crisis and its outcome, it is easy to feel optimistic. From an outside perspective, the UN, the EU, France, and the United States restored democracy in a nation threatened by the so-called dictator, Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to step down after losing a UN-controlled election.

One could thus be excused for assuming that all is now well in sunny Abidjan, and that the rest of the country will soon be the shining example of progress and liberty in Africa. However, despite a warranted sense of optimism, there are also numerous obstacles to overcome and issues to address in order to ensure that Côte d’Ivoire does not revert to its previous condition.

A growing number of red flags have appeared in the first four months of Alassane Ouattara's presidency.  It may be that some of the government's actions might have been made in haste with a sense of urgency to restore peace and order, hence have not observed due process . Ivoirians have paid a steep price to restore order in their country, including twelve years of attempted coups, extreme instability and economic malaise. The question arises as to how long it will be before their chief concerns are addressed.

Promise Ahead

A change in government in an African nation is almost always positive. Countries that have experienced frequent changes have ironically proven to be more stable and have experienced stronger economic growth in comparison to those that have not.

One of the critically positive outcomes of the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire was a consummation of an internationally validated election. Despite the post-election violence, the positive precedent cannot be understated; future elections will carry higher legitimacy across the continent.

The change in Côte d’Ivoire may prove to be a watershed political victory. Of more importance are the social implications. For the first time, a Muslim with foreign origins is at the helm of a country which is notorious for resisting integration of immigrants. As a result, Outtara’s ethnic identity weakens the supporters of the long-popular theory of ethnic supremacy, which propagates the  view that one group is born to govern and lead, another to do business, and others to perform menial tasks. Behind the victory of this one man, there are the encouraging signs of a collectively strengthening nation that allows all constituent groups further overall development.

In less than 20 years, the country has seen leaders from all three main ethnic groups in the country (Malinke, Krou and Akan). There is a hope that this rotation of control will balance the hunger for power in the short-term. Going forward, we can hope that elections will be based on competence instead of clan. Of course, the ethnic instinct to determine power will persist for many years; however, no longer is a single group warranted in saying: ‘this is our turn’.

Despite internal criticism for his international alliances, Ouattara is recognized as a well-connected world leader who will bring attention to the country, from both global political and business leaders. The country’s major infrastructure projects have already been designed but require financing and proper governance to materialize. In conjunction with the support of nations like France and supranational bodies like the EU, the IMF, and the World Bank, Côte d’Ivoire finally has its best chance to become an emerging market.

Since Ouattara was sworn into power, residents of Côte d’Ivoire have seen several encouraging signs, including the dramatic invigoration of Abidjan, through a major clean-up campaign. There has also been a reduction in police harassment, and a legitimate attempt to ensure that all residents have free access to healthcare. While these are minor improvements in comparison to promises made during Outtara’s campaign, they are nonetheless meaningful to Abidjaners and positively affect daily life. One can only hope that this trend will continue for at least several years.

Reason for Concern

While there are several promising signs of progress in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as encouraging support for the country from many international leaders, a closer examination reveals rocky road ahead.

Ouattara is the champion of all northerners, Muslims, and rebel leaders.  Even though he has never officially supported these characterizations, the election results demonstrate his support base. Since he left office in 1993, his battle for power has been relentless and support from his camp has grown continuously. Because it was long in the making, his supporters feel adamant that they deserve credit and that the “gravy train” of power should manifest and come their way quickly and exclusively.

Hence the first major hiccup: Ouattara is assuming power on behalf of a political alliance and a coalition. He does not just represent a majority of the electorate, he represents many groups with special interests. For instance, in order to defeat the incumbent president, he required support from former president Bedie and his party to surpass the 50% hurdle.

Ouattara had to pay a high price in the battle for power. It is understandable that he should feel obliged to reward his lieutenants. However, given the complexity of the 2010 election, as well as the fragile nature of his political alliance, it is important that he be extremely careful in the way he distributes posts. The overwhelming nominations of northerners to key governmental posts could seriously weaken the positive and encouraging trend of bringing back a meritocratic system into the government.

Ouattara promised that he would build a competency-based government, a law-based state and that enforcement would be strict on all aspects of governance. If he gives the appearance is that he is governing for his own camp, he will be no different from his predecessors. This will first disappoint his allies, and then Ivoirians in general, thereby threatening the stability of the entire country.

Simply Unacceptable

A key reason why change of leadership can be so difficult in fragile states is that acts of vengeance, often accompanied by violence, are carried out by the political victors who have long held grudges against the losers. It is always difficult, and perhaps impossible, to prevent these acts. The threat of violence from a victors’ allies is one reason why many leaders have refused to relinquish power in the past. They feel responsible for any prospective retaliation against their camp. The current violence and retribution in Côte d’Ivoire provides us insight into why the previous regime was so reluctant to relinquish power.  It might also make future governments more wary of leaving office.

It is difficult to justify why the United States, France, and the UN are condoning such acts of violence. What happens during wartime between combatants and within the framework of the Geneva conventions can be easily justified, but the general looting, beating, and killing of Gbagbo supporters in Abidjan and across the country is unacceptable. It is brutal, inhuman and sets a dangerous precedent. Five, ten, or fifteen years down the road, when governments get voted out of office we do not want the change of power to be accompanied by violence.

The continuing violence is a travesty of justice. Everybody thought that this travesty would last a few days, or at most a few weeks. The violence is still continuing though. Many people still find it acceptable for the police to arrest citizens without a formal indictment or trial. The shock-value of people being beaten, molested, and robbed in the streets has been eroded. It seems that it will be a while before people get back to condemning such incidents of violence.

Supporters of the previous regime are being treated as criminals. If supporting a losing candidate is a crime then does democracy exist? The real crimes being committed in the country are by the perpetrators of violence. There are discussions within the government and the IPC that all crimes will be punished, but very little has actually been done thus far.

As long as those who support the opposition are treated as criminals, true democracy will not be a reality in Côte d’Ivoire. We can only hope that Ouattara and his team stop hiding behind ‘urgency’ and start a process of building a strong nation known for peace, ethical behavior, and prosperity for all.

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