A letter from Africa (June 2011) - Karen MacGregor


Given the choice between a bunker in Abidjan and a lecturing post at Boston University, most people would choose the latter. But Côte d’Ivoire’s recently deposed leader Laurent Gbagbo turned down an invitation from US President Barack Obama to join the African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) African Presidential Lecture Series (formerly known as the African President-in-Residence Program), aimed at providing career alternatives for African leaders and drawing on their experience to learn about democratisation on the continent.

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Instead, after losing run-off elections on 28 November 2010, Gbagbo clung to power through violence. He lost the war and has been under house arrest since being captured on 11 April 2011 in a bunker at his residence in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city. He is being investigated by prosecutors over human rights abuses committed while he was in power, along with some 200 leaders from his regime. Gbagbo will be defended by French lawyer Jacques Verges, who lists Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal among his former clients.

The International Criminal Court plans to investigate crimes against humanity in the country, where post-electoral conflict claimed some 3,000 lives. The UN human rights office is also probing civilian killings. Switzerland has frozen Gbagbo assets worth US$81m. With the swearing in of President Alassane Ouattara, the man who won the election, on 6 May, Gbagbo has lost power and ill-gotten gains, and faces an uncertain future.

So are there lessons to be learned?
One was offered by Paul-Simon Handy, director of research at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, in an article written just before Gbagbo’s arrest. He argued that Côte d’Ivoire had reached a point where ‘legitimate use of controlled violence’ was necessary to end the conflict. With diplomacy exhausted, only war could bring about peace and, pardoxically, save civilian lives in a rapidly-deteriorating humanitarian situation featuring gross human rights violations, assassinations, destruction of property, use of heavy weapons in urban areas and the displacement of an estimated one million people.

One reason, Handy wrote, was that Gbagbo would never resign, pressured by his entourage and his influential wife Simone, his conception of politics and a background of having to fight for everything he acquired. Secondly, the balance of power had moved against the poll ‘spoiler’ and his troops. The African Union (AU) gave Gbagbo until 24 March to step down. Within days of the deadline expiring, Ouattara’s forces marched south supported by nearly 10,000 UN troops and French forces. Their decisive victory, ‘though highly undesirable in a democratic setting, might have the merit of laying the groundwork for a long-term peaceful resolution of the Ivorian conflict.’ So one lesson could be use of force when necessary rather than what Handy called the ‘dogmatic pacifism’ of many African elites, which can be ‘an excuse for inaction’.

UN forces had been in Côte d’Ivoire since 2004, to keep peace and facilitate implementation of a 2003 peace agreement that followed an armed uprising and growing tension between the mostly-Muslim north and the south. Responding to the post-election turmoil, the UN Security Council passed a Responsibility to Protect (RTP) resolution authorising the use of force to safeguard civilians. Institute for Security Studies researchers David Zounmenou and Dimpho Motsamai contended that the post-electoral debacle in Côte d’Ivoire was one of the most complex crises and intricate cases of peace-building in Africa since the Cold War. There were ‘lessons to ponder regarding leverage and opportunity in conflict resolution; how to enforce commitment and compliance to peace agreements; and the use of requisite mechanisms to complement existing conflict prevention approaches.’ Analysts have suggested that Africa prioritise by building capacity in both rapid reaction and long-term multinational peacekeeping for crisis situations.

Another lesson might be the growing role of African multilateral organisations in resolving political conflict. There are examples of ineffectiveness on the part of the AU, but it was the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were consistent in supporting Ouattara as the democratically-elected president, in line with UN certification of the electoral process. Handy wrote that the credibility of the UN, AU and ECOWAS would have been ‘at stake if a jurisprudence concerning Gbagbo was created at a time when the African continent is going through a high number of crucial elections’. A strong signal needed to be sent to potential spoilers tempted by ‘blatant electoral manipulation á la Gbagbo’.

Indeed, Africa and the international community have rarely displayed such agreement over a political crisis. The UN was swift to act, supported by the European Union, which imposed sanctions. Angered by Gbagbo’s use of violence, which was destabilising the volatile region, ECOWAS also implemented sanctions. West Africa uses the CFA franc and a central bank, and the region handed control of the Ivorian currency to Ouattara. Dr Knox Chitiyo, Africa analyst for the UK think tank the Royal United Services Institute, pointed out that while this brought hardship for Ivorians it also made it clear that ‘Gbagbo’s days were numbered. Nonrecognition of Mr Gbagbo’s representatives piled on the psychological pressure. This shows that sanctions – especially “tight” sanctions applied by neighbouring countries – can work,’ he wrote for the BBC.

The crisis also vividly illustrated the key role in elections of political and legal institutions. African countries have taken major strides in improving the conduct of elections but, Chitiyo commented, there are continuing problems with immediate postelection periods, especially if the result is disputed. In Côte d’Ivoire, key electoral stakeholders made serious mistakes.

The UN and Ivory Coast’s electoral commission had run the election well and declared a legitimate winner. ‘But swearing in Ouattara as president at the Golf Hotel may have exceeded their mandate.’ Gbagbo claimed that polls in northern Ouattara-supporting areas were rigged, although the UN said there was no evidence of this. The Constitutional Council made a major error in quickly voiding thousands of votes cast for Ouattara and swearing in Gbagbo. ‘Although the council has the constitutional power to swear in a new president, it had no authority to re-inaugurate the losing candidate,’ said Chitiyo, and Gbagbo had clearly exceeded the presidential term limit of ten years.

‘All the stakeholders thus boxed themselves into a corner. With neither man willing to budge and no higher authority available in Côte d’Ivoire to decide and implement the decision, the stage was set for a violent showdown.’ The lesson was that Côte d’Ivoire – and other African countries – needs an independent judicial body with the mandate to resolve post-electoral disputes and the tools to implement decisions.

Gbagbo has been ousted and Côte d’Ivoire, once a haven of peace and one of West Africa’s most prosperous nations, has begun to return to normal. Banks and businesses have reopened, exports have resumed, and despite reports in May of people being killed by retreating militia, conflict has subsided. Gbagbo has urged supporters to stop fighting and help to revive the economy, and Ouattara said he would form a unity government with Gbagbo’s party and restore full security to the country by June. The road ahead will be rocky. Côte d’Ivoire’s 21 million people remain divided along ethnic, religious and economic lines, and are deeply traumatised. There has been talk of a truth and reconciliation commission, but Ouattara has also made it clear that Gbagbo should face justice. However, with a clear victor and international support, democracy for the country – and for Africa – could emerge the winner. And lessons have been learned.


You can view extensive news coverage of developments across Africa in Legalbrief Africa, the IBA’s electronic news diary. Go to: tinyurl.com/LegalBriefAfrica

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Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at editors@africa.com.

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