Achieving stable and mature democracy in sub-Saharan Africa remains a work in progress, as illustrated by the November 28 elections in Côte D’Ivoire.
A once comparatively stable west African nation, Côte D’Ivoire has for over a decade existed either in conflict or on the brink of civil war. The latest electoral crisis has once more pushed the country to the brink and spurred growing concern within the international community.
An ethnically divided country, Côte D’Ivoire is the world’s largest cocoa producer, attracting migrant workers from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. This has stirred considerable resentment, particularly from the southern end of the country. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, skilled in the art of political survival, has consistently played upon tribal and ethnic divisions to keep his grip on power. All evidence points to his defeat in the November 28 election run-off, yet Gbagbo refuses to relinquish power to his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, who was banned from running in previous presidential elections because his family is from Burkina Faso.
Gbagbo has declared himself the winner even though the United States, France, the U.N., and the African Union have declared Ouattara the real winner. Recent events demonstrate that Gbagbo has no intention of stepping down. He ordered the 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force to leave the country, massacred pro-Ouattara supporters, and cut off all food and aid to Ouattara’s offices. The U.N. fears a potential breakout of civil war.
While Gbagbo is ignoring calls from the U.S. State Department to step aside and make way for a peaceful transition, the imposition of financial sanctions are a realistic possibility. The African Union hasn’t fared much better in its progress. Gbagbo turned down a compromise, and potential power-sharing deals have fallen through. Though no single country or organization has wielded enough influence in dethroning the unwieldy leader, there is power in institutions.
When President Obama visited Ghana in 2009, he emphasized that a commitment to partnering with institutions such as the African Union can bring about positive change on the continent. He boldly proclaimed, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
The current election crisis in Côte D’Ivoire requires outside involvement to defuse a dangerous standoff. It is up to neighboring African leaders like Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and the African Union to press hard for Gbagbo to step down.
In order to turn aphorism into action, the Obama Administration should also work effectively with the African Union, U.N., and European Union to ensure that democratic governance is restored to Côte D’Ivoire. Otherwise, the prospects for genuine democracy for hundreds of millions of Africans will be further diminished.