Dear President Mbeki: The United Nations Helped Save the Ivory Coast

By sticking to internationally recognized principles, the U.N. was able to restore the rule of law in the embattled West African state.


President Thabo Mbeki has presented an inaccurate account of recent events in the Ivory Coast, and his defence of former President Laurent Gbagbo’s attempt to thwart the will of the Ivorian people is surprising.

When Mr. Gbagbo’s mandate expired in 2005, Ivorians, African leaders, and the international community invested five years in finding a political solution. Through the Pretoria Agreement, signed in 2005 under President Mbeki’s auspices, and the Ouagadougou Political Agreement (2007), the Ivorian parties assumed full ownership of the peace process. It was they who dictated the pace, timelines, and solutions to any obstacles.

Ivory Coast’s 2010 president election had been postponed several times owing to inadequate progress toward disarmament and reunification. Last August, however, Mr. Gbagbo, acting without any external pressure, signed a decree setting Oct. 31, 2010, as the date for the first round of the vote. This step was endorsed by all relevant actors, who recognized that any further delay could itself have caused violence.

The first round was a milestone. Mr. Gbagbo, who emerged as the leading candidate, expressed his appreciation to the special representative of the U.N. secretary general for his role in certifying the election results.

The second round was held on Nov. 28, and the U.N Special Representative Choi Young-Jin followed the same agreed-upon certification procedure he had used for the first round. His analysis agreed with the Independent Electoral Commission, which declared Alassane Ouattara the winner.

The special representative also determined that the results proclaimed by the Constitutional Council, which gave "victory" to Mr. Gbagbo, were not based on facts, and that the council had arbitrarily nullified results from the north, thereby disenfranchising a large portion of the population. The special representative also indicated that, even if Mr. Gbagbo’s complaints had been found valid, Ouattara would still be the winner. ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), the chief regional organizations of West Africa, supported the certification by the special representative and endorsed the results announced by the Electoral Commission.

The legal basis for the U.N. certification mandate is derived from the Pretoria Agreement and subsequent Declaration on the Implementation of the Pretoria Agreement. Ivorians themselves were keenly aware that elections were likely to take place in an environment of mistrust and lack of confidence in the relevant institutions, and so turned to the United Nations as an impartial presence. The United Nations is proud to have fulfilled its role in accordance with the relevant international agreements.  

In the course of the crisis, some called for a recount. Yet the idea behind a recount was to pave the way for a "negotiated political solution" that would have led to a power-sharing arrangement, a solution that President Mbeki seemed to favor — but which would have set a dangerous precedent for the continent and undermined the principles of democracy.  There should be zero tolerance for desperate acts by rulers seeking to stay in power against the will of the people.

The post-election violence was a direct result of Mr. Gbagbo’s refusal to accept defeat and his repeated rejection of all efforts to find a peaceful solution. Security forces loyal to him used heavy weapons against civilians in communities perceived as strongholds of President Ouattara, against U.N. peacekeepers, and against supporters of Ouattara at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, which was during the crisis the temporary seat of the legitimate government.

Acting with the unanimous support of the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. Operation in Cote D’Ivoire (UNOCI) undertook limited military operations, strictly within the bounds of its mandate, to protect civilians. It did not, at any stage, seek to stop or facilitate military gains by any side. Throughout the crisis, UNOCI has undertaken every effort to implement its mandate in an impartial manner and protect civilians irrespective of their political affiliation. Just as the mission provided security at the Golf Hotel, so it is currently providing security to Mr. Gbagbo and more than 50 officials of his Front populaire ivoirien (FPI).

The impartiality of the United Nations does not mean neutrality. Its peacekeepers had a responsibility to act in the face of possible grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. President Mbeki claims that the crisis confirms the marginalization of the African Union. In fact, the AU refused to allow itself to be used as a vehicle for an unconstitutional grab for power, thereby heightening its legitimacy.

The ultimate vindication of the principled position taken by ECOWAS, the AU, and the United Nations came from the Ivorian Constitutional Council itself. On May 5, President Yao N’Dre set aside the fabricated results announced five months earlier, proclaimed President Ouattara the legitimate winner, and swore him into office the next day.

Elections, on their own, will never be a panacea for the root causes of conflict. National reconciliation in the Ivory Coast will not be easy, but the country is on the right track toward reclaiming its role as the pillar of stability in the sub-region. African leaders who wish to play a constructive role may begin by offering support to that country as it moves forward rather than trying to reorder facts or rewrite history.

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