HomeLocal NewsIvory Coast — test case for Africa

Ivory Coast — test case for Africa


Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute, considers the deadlock after Ivory Coast’s disputed elections and asks: What happens next?

From the outside the Ivory Coast election looks like a classic case of an African incumbent refusing to stand down after losing an election.

There are, however, a number of complicating factors which may lead to a protracted struggle and which stiffen Laurent Gbabgo’s resolve.

He has the support of the military and a significant percentage of the southern electorate. He is basing his claim to the presidency on the dubiously revised 51% vote awarded to him by the Constitutional Council.

The electoral commission said his rival Alassane Ouattara had won, with 54%, before the Constitutional Council annulled a large number of votes from his northern stronghold.

Although the Unied Nations which oversaw the election has backed the election commission and Alassane, Gbagbo is basing his claim on constitutionalism.

The fact that the Constitutional Council has awarded him the majority vote and sworn him back into office is seen as constitutionally legitimising his tenure. Gbagbo has, in effect, masterminded a constitutional coup.

The security chiefs have also declared their loyalty to Gbagbo. It is this combination of military support, nominal constitutionalism and some electoral support from the south which has convinced Gbagbo that he can ride out the storm.

Ouattara has also taken the oath of office and appointed a cabinet but the fact he was not sworn in has given Gbagbo some ammunition to claim that it is Ouattara, not he, who is the unconstitutional leader.

So Ivory Coast has two presidents and multiple paradoxes, the main one being that the legitimate president-elect has sworn himself in unconstitutionally while the defeated incumbent has refused to relinquish power and used the constitution to undermine democracy.

The Ivory Coast elections are about much more than promoting democracy. Following the peace deals which ended the 2002-2004 civil war, there has been a fraught balance of power between the north held by the New Forces insurgents and the south held by the pro-Gbagbo security forces.

The election was thus also intended to promote national unity and the demilitarisation of politics in Ivory Coast.

Currently there is an unusually broad regional and international consensus that Ouattara is the rightful winner. The UN, France, the US and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) was have all urged Gbagbo to step down.

Given that the country has had a power-sharing government for the past four years and that both men have set up rival governments, there seems little likelihood that Ecowas would be able to push for yet another power-sharing coalition.

There have been isolated outbreaks of violence in Abidjan.

Both men have painted themselves into a corner which makes it unlikely that either can countenance “surrendering” executive office or being able to explain a “capitulation” to their followers.

More likely is that the region and its partners will try to negotiate an exit strategy with Gbagbo and the various militaries in Ivory Coast.

Ecowas will not want to use force against Ivory Coast forces for fear of igniting a return to civil war, so they will use a combination of pressure – regional sanctions – and persuasive incentives to coax Gbagbo to step down now, or within a recognisable time frame.

There will also be discussions with Ouattara to sound out whether he would be willing to temporarily put his presidential aspirations on hold and work in some form of short-term coalition with Gbagbo.

Both outcomes are unlikely but not impossible. The likeliest outcome is that Gbagbo remains president while facing increasingly severe regional and international sanctions and increased insurgency.

Co-ordinated Ecowas and international diplomatic and financial sanctions proved effective against coup leaders in Niger, Togo and Guinea in the past year or so.

But it is not certain that the sanctions threat would immediately persuade Gbagbo to step down, as he still controls many of the state levers of power.

An Ecowas-UN military operation to remove Gbagbo is unlikely unless his forces attacked the UN first. Ouattara has support in Abidjan but his real power base lies in the north and parts of the west.

There will thus be a resurgent north-south polarisation in Ivory Coast until some kind of deal is reached.

The region and international community will have a major influence in what happens but ultimately, it will be behind-the-scenes discussions between the various military stakeholders and the politicians which will determine whether a deal, and what kind, can be reached.

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