Feature

Reform School

In the early days of Ivory Coast's election crisis, U.S. policymakers tried to offer Laurent Gbagbo a post at Boston University. Could academia really entice the world's most entrenched strongmen to step down?

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

On April 11, in the early afternoon as the sun was peaking over Abidjan, Ivory Coast, troops loyal to the country’s president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, burst into the presidential palace where Laurent Gbagbo was hiding, after four months of refusing to step down after losing the election. For the last week, as a de facto civil war raged, the international community had engaged in furious negotiations to try to lure him out of the bunker where he and his wife remained guarded by about 1,000 troops. Rumors circulated that he might accept exile, perhaps in South Africa or Togo. But Gbagbo wasn’t having it; he’d received many such offers so far and had accepted none of them.

Perhaps the most intriguing offer of a "dignified exit" came from the White House. In early January, after a month of failed negotiations to get the outgoing Ivorian president to quit the stage, Barack Obama’s administration offered him another option — a post at a Boston University program created precisely for this purpose: to help answer the increasingly difficult question of where a former strongman finds a soft landing these days.

The man behind the program is Charles Stith, a former pastor turned diplomat, and now academic. While serving as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania in the late 1990s, Stith noticed an interesting problem. African leaders across the continent, even those who appeared democratically inclined, seemed loath to step down. As he put it in a statement upon Gbagbo’s arrest, "Power is a seductive mistress, who once kissed is hard to walk away from."

Stitch believed that part of the problem for African leaders was that the options for an honorable exit were slim. There were few places where they could be honored and pampered, or at least left alone to live out their days. After a series of public scandals over dictators’ property and assets in once popular destinations such as Paris or London, few strongmen now retire there. Amid the current unrest in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has seemed the only place willing to take fleeing leaders who would surely be prosecuted elsewhere.

When Stith came back to the United States from his service abroad, he set about to create one such place: a visiting professorship for a former African head of state who steps down by choice. His creation, Boston University’s African President-in-Residence Program at the African Presidential Archives and Research Center has hosted six outgoing leaders, with one more — former Zanzibar President Amani Abeid Karume — having just arrived. "It gives them a kind of credibility at home because it gives them an international platform," Stith explained in an interview. Even more importantly to policymakers, "entities like mine enable a broader conversation to take place when you’re trying to get these guys to understand [a democratic transition]."

The African President-in-Residence Program works like this: At a moment when a transition seems imminent or possible, offers of the position at Boston University (BU) are extended through diplomatic channels. If the outgoing president says yes, he is welcomed to the Boston campus for six months to study, lecture, and write. "They usually live pretty close to campus," explained Kisha Wilson, attaché for the President-in-Residence Program. "They are really a part of BU." With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and a close relationship with the U.S. State Department, the post offers a public pulpit for the ex-presidents, in the hopes that these outgoing leaders can become advocates for democracy in Africa. The first such resident, former Zambian President Kenneth David Kaunda, for example, left behind nearly three decades of consecutive rule, during which he created a one-party state. At BU, he recast himself as an evangelist for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, speaking and writing op-eds and papers about how Africa could overcome the crisis. He also started a foundation intended to promote conflict resolution.

"The program reinforces that there is a life after the presidency," said Jendayi Frazer, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under George W. Bush and liaised with the BU program. "They’ve created a community of former presidents, and it creates the opportunity for an exit. There needs to be more programs like it."

Never have graceful exits for autocrats been in higher demand. Dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were unceremoniously dumped earlier this year, though not without loss of life, while leaders like Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad seem committed to holding on to power by any means necessary. Travel south across the Sahara desert, and the number of long-serving leaders on the African continent multiplies still. From Chad to Zimbabwe, Cameroon to Eritrea, a generation of African leaders has refused to step down. In 2011, a whopping 22 African countries have held or are scheduled to hold elections, and not a single presidential contest is likely to see a transition of power from the incumbent. (Uganda‘s and Djibouti‘s presidential elections, for example, have already provided new mandates for the long-serving incumbents.) Some leaders who are up for reelection — for example Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe — may well be voted out if free and fair ballots were held. Others, such as Cameroon’s President Paul Biya and Central African Republic’s President François Bozizé have crushed the opposition for so long that they’ve created what diplomats like to call an "uneven playing field," tilted massively in the incumbents’ favor long before the vote is held. Against this backdrop, democracy proponents across the international community could use a few more tools in their kit to encourage entrenched strongmen to let their countries transition peacefully. But does the BU center actually help?

The perfect test case came in late 2010 in the Ivory Coast, with an election that has set a dispiriting and dangerous tone for the 13 coming ballots in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011. After delaying the presidential vote for half a decade, President Laurent Gbagbo finally allowed the process to go forward in November. "I’ve never seen such a clean election in Africa," Spes Manirakiza, Search for Common Ground country director for Ivory Coast, told me in this month. Gbagbo lost; but in the days after, it became immediately clear that he was not going to step down. He proclaimed himself the winner, took the oath of office, and named a cabinet; his loyal troops cornered the internationally recognized real winner, Alassane Ouattara, in a nearby hotel, where he went about appointing his own government. After four months of negotiations to get Gbagbo to quit power, Ouattara gave up and decided to take the country by force. His troops’ 10-day drive toward the commercial capital, Abidjan, eventually unseated Gbagbo on Monday, April 11.

In the early days of the crisis, however, the international community tried every manner of persuasion to convince Gbagbo to go. Presidents including Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria called him and pushed for him to step down; three current and former African heads of state flew in for talks with both sides. Obama called twice, but neither time did Gbagbo take the call. Finally, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Gbagbo offering him a way out. One of the options they discussed, according to a State Department official, was Stith’s program in Boston. "We will never know whether or not that would have worked for someone like Gbagbo because we never had a response," the official said in an interview. (Asked about this, Stith declined to discuss details but replied, "Had Gbagbo decided to step aside, certainly in the earliest days, it would have been precisely in keeping with the profile of folks that we encourage to affiliate with us in some manner.")

Gbagbo wasn’t the first African leader who had been offered the post and turned it down. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was sent offers in 2005, when he was working to change the Constitution to allow the possibility of running for a third term. "There were a lot of folks who appealed to him to follow the example of Julius Nyerere [in Tanzania] and Nelson Mandela in South Africa and leave while his popularity was high," Stith recalls. "We did communicate to people in the country as well as folks outside the country that were he to not change the Constitution, that he’s somebody who would certainly be welcome in our program." Museveni wasn’t interested. Six years later, this February, Museveni won yet another term in elections that the U.S. State Department was "disappointed" by. When his mandate ends, he will have been in office for 30 years.

Yet elsewhere, the program has worked — or at least helped push countries in a more democratic direction. The current president in residence at the center, Zanzibar’s Karume, was reported to have considered seeking a third term, but chose not to run instead. That’s no small triumph; pressure had mounted on the president to stick around, even from members of the opposition, who in January 2010 urged him to "finish what he has started." Many leaders, points out Anthony Gambino, a former head of USAID in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are surrounded by an inner circle "who know it’s game over [for them] if [the strongman] leaves, and will want to do every nefarious thing in the book to hold onto power." Zanzibar has since seen clean elections, which took place last fall, and a peaceful transfer of power.

Still, there are troublesome questions about the long-term benefit of offering leaders a safe exit. Although doing so would remove them from their posts, it may also remove them from local judicial systems’ ability to hold them accountable for any past crimes. That’s one reason that the BU program has steered away from courting the more nefarious characters, such as the Robert Mugabes of the world. And now that Gbagbo has been arrested — and will be put on trial, as President-elect Ouattara has promised — there will be no going to Boston. Some make the case for privileging the lesser evil, offering a sort of amnesty in exchange for the strongman’s stepping down. "There would be some level of accommodation," says Gambino, "But what you’ve gotten [in return] is a democratic transition." Certainly, hundreds of lives would likely have been spared in the Ivory Coast had Gbagbo taken the bait.

But the truth is that the strongest of strongmen simply don’t find the BU program an enticing-enough option; clearly Gbagbo didn’t. "Why would somebody in [Gbagbo’s] position step down and take the offer of a university position?" asks Comfort Ero, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group. Indeed, Frazer, the former assistant secretary of state, notes that it’s not the "bad guys" who are attracted to coming to the BU program. "It usually attracts the good guys who have decided to turn over power." Stith admits that there are not even any real candidates to join his program from the class of incumbent leaders up for reelection in sub-Saharan Africa this year.

The idea is similar to a high-profile program begun by Sudanese cell-phone mogul turned philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, whose African leadership prize rewards an uncorrupt, democratic African leader a grant of $5 million after they leave office. So far, the prize has been awarded only to the former presidents of South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana; in the last two years, the foundation could find no suitable candidates.

So does reform school work? The BU alumni, who include Botswanan President Festus Gontebanye Mogae (who also won the Ibrahim Prize), have largely all become elderly statesmen; if all haven’t become Mandelas, at least they’re not causing any more harm. Mogae, the highest-profile of the former presidents in residence, is now leading a review panel for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, among other diplomatic endeavors. Others are more indiscreetly on foundation boards or speaking circuits.

But if the BU program isn’t the ultimate answer, at least it’s a start. The more "good guys" who show up in Boston, the greater the precedent for others to follow in their path. "I don’t think what we do will be a deal-maker," says Stith. But the program can help a would-be democrat "to look at the full expanse of opportunities [that could await him] when considering transfers of power."

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