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The Case against a unity government in Cote d’Ivoire

It’s all the rage. Got a contested election in a fragile African country? Send in the elderly statesmen, make the warring parties sit down, and force them both into an uncomfortable but face-saving unity government. It happened in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe now shares power with the real vote-winner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. It ...

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images
SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

It’s all the rage. Got a contested election in a fragile African country? Send in the elderly statesmen, make the warring parties sit down, and force them both into an uncomfortable but face-saving unity government. It happened in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe now shares power with the real vote-winner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. It happened in Kenya, where incumbant President Mwai Kibaki was force-married with Prime Minister and rival Raila Odinga. And now, it’s in danger of happening again in Cote d’Ivoire.

The mayhem in Cote d’Ivoire is serious. The country’s presidential election was delayed repeatedly since 2005. When it finally took place, the results were delayed until international pressure came sufficiently to bear. The opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara is believed to have won and has been endorsed by international observers. But both he and the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo have now held swearing-in ceremonies. 

So the temptation arises for a coalition. Le Monde has already floated the possibility, and African Union meditor (and former South African President) Thabo Mbeki has already flown to Abidjan. How else can we get both sides peacefully to come to some sort of agreement? But Zimbabwe and Kenya should be evidence enough of why not. Both pacts have ended in stagnation, infighting, and political deadlock. Ending the short-term crisis has come at the cost of sacrificing long-term political development.

Just take Zimbabwe, where the unity government may well have simply delayed the crisis. After months of being sidelined from Mugabe’s unilateral decision-making, Prime Minister Tsvangirai has repeatedly boycotted his own government. He has been forced to sacrifice his entire reform agenda in favor of focusing all his political capital on a single goal: another election. There’s no reason to believe another vote will go any differently that the last, when Mugabe lost and still claimed victory. Kenya has likewise proved troublesome; the president and prime minister are rumored to have gone months without talking. And so great was mediator Kofi Annan’s frustration with the government’s inability to push reforms and prosecute perpetrators of the 2008 election violence that he referred the names of the offenders to the International Criminal Court himself. 

Now to Cote d’Ivoire, where the situation has more in common with Kenya and Zimbabwe than just its potential for turmoil. Here, as in those two countries, the two political rivals aren’t just political foes but personal ones who are not likely to work well together (if the current standoff isn’t evidence enough.) Incumbent Gbagbo, who lost, blames Ouattara for imprisoning him when the former was a rebel leader long ago.  Ouattara, meanwhile, can’t possibly feel fondly toward Gbagbo, having been barred from previous elections for his supposed non-Ivorian roots tracing to Burkina Faso. 

It would be great if these two could get along. But the stakes are too high to let them try while running a country. Cote d’Ivoire’s government is already suffering.  And tensions have left more than a dozen dead in rival protests. Reconciliation is great and much needed — but probably not best handled within the country’s top office. 

It’s all the rage. Got a contested election in a fragile African country? Send in the elderly statesmen, make the warring parties sit down, and force them both into an uncomfortable but face-saving unity government. It happened in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe now shares power with the real vote-winner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. It happened in Kenya, where incumbant President Mwai Kibaki was force-married with Prime Minister and rival Raila Odinga. And now, it’s in danger of happening again in Cote d’Ivoire.

The mayhem in Cote d’Ivoire is serious. The country’s presidential election was delayed repeatedly since 2005. When it finally took place, the results were delayed until international pressure came sufficiently to bear. The opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara is believed to have won and has been endorsed by international observers. But both he and the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo have now held swearing-in ceremonies. 

So the temptation arises for a coalition. Le Monde has already floated the possibility, and African Union meditor (and former South African President) Thabo Mbeki has already flown to Abidjan. How else can we get both sides peacefully to come to some sort of agreement? But Zimbabwe and Kenya should be evidence enough of why not. Both pacts have ended in stagnation, infighting, and political deadlock. Ending the short-term crisis has come at the cost of sacrificing long-term political development.

Just take Zimbabwe, where the unity government may well have simply delayed the crisis. After months of being sidelined from Mugabe’s unilateral decision-making, Prime Minister Tsvangirai has repeatedly boycotted his own government. He has been forced to sacrifice his entire reform agenda in favor of focusing all his political capital on a single goal: another election. There’s no reason to believe another vote will go any differently that the last, when Mugabe lost and still claimed victory. Kenya has likewise proved troublesome; the president and prime minister are rumored to have gone months without talking. And so great was mediator Kofi Annan’s frustration with the government’s inability to push reforms and prosecute perpetrators of the 2008 election violence that he referred the names of the offenders to the International Criminal Court himself. 

Now to Cote d’Ivoire, where the situation has more in common with Kenya and Zimbabwe than just its potential for turmoil. Here, as in those two countries, the two political rivals aren’t just political foes but personal ones who are not likely to work well together (if the current standoff isn’t evidence enough.) Incumbent Gbagbo, who lost, blames Ouattara for imprisoning him when the former was a rebel leader long ago.  Ouattara, meanwhile, can’t possibly feel fondly toward Gbagbo, having been barred from previous elections for his supposed non-Ivorian roots tracing to Burkina Faso. 

It would be great if these two could get along. But the stakes are too high to let them try while running a country. Cote d’Ivoire’s government is already suffering.  And tensions have left more than a dozen dead in rival protests. Reconciliation is great and much needed — but probably not best handled within the country’s top office. 

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.

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