Ivory Coast: a watershed for African democracy?

April 18, 2011

Now that defiant former leader, Laurent Gbagbo is in custody and Alassane Ouattara has been installed as the duly-elected president of Ivory coast what are the lessons that can be learned if an election is disputed in the future in Africa?

There has been a considerable amount of discussion about the implications of events in Ivory Coast for the rest of Africa – we will be addressing this issue at our event The Ivory Coast: What now for Africa and its strongmen?

Analyst Knox Chitiyo argues that with no higher authority available to decide and implement the decision the stage was set for ‘a violent showdown’ after the stakeholders boxed themselves into a corner:

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.

The arrest of Laurent Gbagbo sent a message to dictators that they cannot disregard the verdict of free elections, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said

There was a great deal at stake in the Ivory Coast, not least because the African Union and the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas), have taken 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, Knox Chitiyo argues:

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.

A recent blog post by Richard M Kavuma highlights the importance of the elections in Ivory Coast for the rest of Africa and looks at what it means for other strongmen in the region:

Ideally, elections are held to choose leaders, but in many cases in Africa, elections are either intended to launder regimes that fought their way to power, or otherwise dress up despots in democratic garb – so the idea of losing is academic. In these neopatrimonial states, the big man, like Mugabe or Museveni, believes only he has the capacity and the right to rule. Hence, Museveni sees "no one else with the vision" to lead Uganda, and Mugabe believes Tsvangirai cannot lead Zimbawe because he did not fight for independence. 

With such logic, elections are routinely rigged – the Ugandan courts have found the previous two presidential polls were. And if the rigging falls short, there must be a mechanism in place to announce the big man as the winner.

In Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast, the pressure to end the chaos has come from abroad. Whether such pressure can be sustainable is questionable, but perhaps Ivory Coast represents a watershed for African democracy – the optimistic exceptions of countries such as Ghana and Botswana notwithstanding.

Less than a week after Laurent Gbagbo was captured, it was the turn of Nigerians went to go to the polls on Saturday.

Already described as free and fair, it was clear that the elections were judged important by ECOWAS and the EU, which said it was looking to the country to model democracy

Nigerian-born novelist and journalist Kingsley Kobo – who has spent the past 16 years in Ivory Coast reflects on lessons that could be learnt from events in Ivory Coast and urged the people of Nigeria to play their part in ensuring the same didn’t happen there:

Elections are meant to create a peaceful atmosphere for progress and development, in the way we imagined the Ivorian presidential election would. Sadly, artilleries and mortars, pillaging and looting are speaking.

I urge you never to let this happen in our great country, Nigeria.