Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to give up power isn't just a crisis for the Ivory Coast -- it's a moment of truth for the whole continent.
A stare-down in a remote and not very consequential corner of the world has become a test of that noble but vague entity known as the international community. The confrontation pits Laurent Gbagbo, the strongman leader of the Ivory Coast, who has refused to step down despite losing an election last November, against the United States, France, and an array of international organizations: the United Nations, the World Bank, the African Union, and the West African regional body known as ECOWAS. It sounds like an extremely unequal confrontation. But six weeks after the election, Gbagbo still occupies the presidential palace and shows no intention of leaving. He may end by inflicting serious damage not only on his own people, but on the standing of some very important institutions.
Africa is the regional example par excellence of what Fareed Zakaria has called “illiberal democracies”: states in which tyrants and autocrats cynically exploit the formal trappings of democracy in order to marshal popular support and then rule with little concern for democratic accountability. African leaders routinely amend their countries’ constitutions to allow themselves to stay in office (Kenya), murder and terrorize the opposition (Zimbabwe), or even threaten to kill the voters themselves if they pull the wrong lever (Liberia). But Africa also has an increasing number of countries that take justifiable pride in their democratic institutions, however wobbly they may be — South Africa, Nigeria, even Mali — as well as regional bodies whose charters place democratic values at their core. Gbagbo has, in effect, provoked a clash between the traditional Africa of the autocrat and the fledgling Africa of institutions that prize democracy, even if they do not always practice it.
Gbagbo, a longtime political activist who was briefly jailed in the 1990s — by then-Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, the same politician who defeated him in the presidential election late last year — has been at this game for a long time and is exceptionally skilled at it. He was elected president in 2000; after an insurgency broke out in northern Ivory Coast in 2002, Gbagbo agreed to a cease-fire, and then violated its terms by expelling representatives of the rebels from his government and by failing to disarm his own forces. In 2004, I attended a meeting of a dozen or so African heads of state that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had convened on the sidelines of an African Union session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the goal of persuading Gbagbo to abide by the terms of the deal. Gbagbo must have been greatly amused to be lectured about “reintegration” by none other than Omar Bongo, Gabon’s president for life. He certainly seemed amused, jovially joining in the discussion as if it were aimed at someone else altogether. He promised to reconcile with the rebels, and then proceeded to ignore the pledge.
The Ivory Coast has been teetering on the brink of a catastrophe ever since, in part because Gbagbo and his allies fanned the flames of nationalism by treating northerners as non-Ivoirian. Gbagbo refused to call an election for years, thus inflaming sentiment throughout the north. Presumably he thought he would win the race last November; populist leaders have a way of deluding themselves on that score. When the United Nations certified that Ouattara had won, Gbagbo not only refused to acknowledge the outcome, but also unleashed his security forces, as well as youth militias, on Ouattara’s supporters. Between Dec. 16 and 23, U.N. human rights monitors reported 173 killings, 90 cases of torture or abuse, 24 forced disappearances, and hundreds of arrests. Bullet-riddled bodies turned up on the streets of Abidjan, the country’s chief city. Gbagbo has since demanded the departure of the 10,000-man U.N. peacekeeping mission, which arrived in 2004 and now protects Ouattara at a seaside hotel; the United Nations, no longer recognizing the incumbent’s authority, has refused.
Gbagbo has managed to wear out everyone’s patience. When Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing Ouattara’s victory, it found itself besieged not only by the United States, Britain, and France, but also by Uganda. ECOWAS endorsed Ouattara and in the aftermath of the violence threatened the use of force to remove Gbagbo from office. And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has surprised his critics by showing some spine on the subject, unambiguously supporting Ouattara’s victory and threatening Gbagbo and his allies with culpability for alleged atrocities. “He really does think that this is the test case of international credibility,” I was told by a U.N. official usually very critical of Ban.
It is dangerous to declare something a test case. “This is the hour of Europe,” Luxembourg’s foreign minister said as violence flared in the Balkans in 1991. Europe failed. A decade later, the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, challenged the commitment to never again stand by in the face of genocide, as countries had in Rwanda. This time the whole world failed. And the failure came to be understood paradigmatically: The international community is not prepared to use force to stop atrocities carried out as a conscious instrument of state policy. That was the lesson, and leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe paid close attention: Who would stop him as he trashed his own country in order to preserve his power?
But if the Ivory Coast is a test case, it appears to be a less difficult one. The world is united on the matter — as it was not, for example, in the case of Darfur. Even China won’t defend a regime whose chief export is cocoa. But will that be enough? Gbagbo has been offered all sorts of blandishments to step down: professorships to gratify his vanity, a position with an unspecified international organization, the opportunity to remain in the country as head of the “loyal opposition.” Nothing has worked. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the former head of U.N. peacekeeping, knows Gbagbo well and says that Gbagbo believes fervently in his own legitimacy, and would rather stand and fight than accept a sinecure.
If the carrots have been exhausted, that leaves the sticks. The U.N. has already imposed sanctions on the government; Susan Rice, U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, has called for a travel ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo. This week, Gbagbo appeared to crack, promising a delegation of West African heads of state that he would lift the blockade around Ouattara’s hotel. But then nothing happened — which of course is the president’s modus operandi. Then Gbagbo’s security forces raided an office of Ouattara’s party, killing at least one person. Maybe Gbagbo is another Mugabe: “I think he’s the kind of person who might just bring his country down rather than let his power go,” says Guéhenno. Tellingly, Gbagbo has sent a diplomatic emissary to Harare, Zimbabwe, to consult with that country’s leaders. But Ouattara is not about to step down either.
The head of the ECOWAS commission recently reiterated the threat to oust Gbagbo by force. In 1999, the organization’s military wing, known as ECOMOG, sent thousands of troops to Sierra Leone to prevent rebels from overthrowing the country’s elected president. They were quite effective, if also extremely brutal. But in that case, they had been invited, and they were fighting a bunch of crazed gangsters. Would West African armies really invade a member country, and fight its army, to support the results of an election? Not likely. In fact, it would probably be a terrible idea. One West African diplomat at the United Nations told me that the “threat value” of an invasion might be enough to persuade Gbagbo. He added, however, that he believed, “given time,” the president would agree to go peacefully.
The Obama administration has done a great deal behind the scenes, which is precisely what it should be doing. Obama has called Ban as well as Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria, which currently chairs ECOWAS and is its true motive force, urging both to take an unequivocal stance against Gbagbo. Susan Rice prevailed on Obama to telephone Gbagbo, who refused to take the call. France, the Ivory Coast’s colonial patron, has also pressed hard for U.N. action.
But the Ivory Coast does not pose a test for the United States or France. It does for the United Nations, which has troops on the ground, and which has used every instrument at its disposal to dislodge Gbagbo. And it does even more for the Ivory Coast’s neighbors, and for the African Union and ECOWAS.
Regional institutions don’t matter that much in many parts of the globe. The Organization of American States may be a weak reed, but South America is largely democratic and peaceful today. Asia has many such bodies, none of them very effective, but Asia is mostly stable. And because the Middle East is almost wholly autocratic, institutions like the Arab League have no interest in promulgating democratic norms. Only in Africa, where despots cling to power in the face of rising public aspirations, are such institutions called on to mediate primal conflicts. If Gbagbo successfully defies the pressure, he will make ECOWAS look like a paper tiger, and thus seriously weaken the forces of democracy and the rule of law.
It is — truly — the hour of Africa.
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1
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