Once West Africa’s Rising Star, Ivory Coast Faces Dangerous Horizon

The 2010 election was supposed to herald a new era in the region. Now, the future holds more questions than answers.

By Michelle Chen Apr 08, 2011

If the overthrow of a a dictatorship in Egypt taught us what social movements can accomplish through nonviolent resistance, then the crisis engulfing the Ivory Coast is a lesson in how even the trappings of democracy can fail to keep a fragile nation from breaking apart.

Though the battle for leadership of the country rages on, the showdown in Abidjan could mark the final convulsion of violence following a disputed presidential election last year. The conflict has left as many as 1,500 dead and pushed several hundred thousand from their homes. 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In fact, in contrast with the whirlwind revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, which caught the West by surprise and continue to bewilder European, U.S. and Arab officials, Cote d’Ivoire was supposed to be wrapping up a long transition from civil war to peaceful political processes. The 2010 election was supposed to cap a multi-year, United Nations-monitored process of rebuilding. So the violence that engulfs the nation now is particularly frustrating.

"People in Africa are tired of wars. My generation is a generation of action, we want to see our continent develop," Global Voices blogger Julie Owono told Al Jazeera. "We are aware of the potential of the one billion inhabitants [of the] continent, and we are also more than ever conscious that development can never be achieved in times of war."

As a top cocoa exporter, Cote d’Ivoire was once a patch of prosperity in a region scarred by poverty and conflict, and its people have struggled to reclaim their status as a model of stability. Today, the traumatized refugees who’ve escaped to their unstable neighbor Liberia could even be considered luckier than the throngs of Ivorians who’ve been displaced.

After international sanctions and condemnation against incumbent "strongman" Laurent Gbagbo, the internationally recognized President-elect Allasane Ouattara finally seems poised to take power. But Gbagbo’s posture parallels in some ways the insular stubbornness of other delegitimized leaders. As of this writing, he remains deadlocked in failed negotiations over a resolution. 

Gbagbo probably doesn’t have the military might to cling to power Gaddafi style. And the regional body ECOWAS has indicated that it will not pursue a face-saving, power-sharing deal, such as the one arranged in Kenya following 2007 post-election violence. Rather, it will enforce the original internationally recognized election result: Ouattara’s victory. It may even be too late for Gbagbo to stage a semi-dignified exile, as Ouattara’s administration, which has been operating as a sort of shadow government since the election, may try to prosecute him so that he can, in the words of a spokesperson quoted in the New York Times, "answer for his actions."

Yet Gbagbo is not the only one in Cote d’Ivoire who must be held to account for the blood staining Ivorian streets. As African political analyst Gnaka Lagoke noted on Democracy Now!, "it is not a matter of angel or demon, or somebody who’s a hero and somebody who’s a villain." Since both sides have taken part in illegitimate killings, he continued, "both of them are tragic heroes, and they are in the central part of the tragedy of the country."

Another aspect of that tragedy resides in Cote d’Ivoire’s political polarities. There are differences in Gbagbo and Ouattara’s policy positions: Gbagbo, a former school teacher, trade unionist, and exiled activist, has been billed as a socialist. Former IMF official Ouattara presents a more centrist, Western-framed position. And beyond the two rivals’ differences, Ivorian society also faces ethnic and religious divisions. 

Horace Campbell sees power struggles between Muslims and Christians, north and south, driving the conflict. Campbell details Ouattara’s important history in Pambazuka:

One of [Ouattara’s] parents had migrated from Burkina Faso although he himself had joined the ruling circles rising to become Prime Minister under Boigny. Xenophobia was buttressed by religious chauvinism as the opposition to the leadership of Ouattara was wrapped in religious garb. In 1995 President [Henri] Bedie had disqualified Ouattara from the presidential race on the grounds that he was not a citizen even though less than three years earlier both men had served in the cabinet of Boigny. Ouattara was excluded on grounds of religion and citizenship and disqualification alienated many of the citizens from the North who followed the Islamic faith. This chauvinism and xenophobia was given currency as a cultural force under the label of Ivoirite (Ivorian-ness).

For now, such debates about national identity and political legitimacy have been subsumed by the looming humanitarian crisis. The very best Ivorians could hope for at this point may simply be an end to the carnage. The rampant violation and degradation of human rights–culpability for which may ultimately fall on both parties–has broken Cote d’Ivoire’s lapsed promise as West Africa’s rising star.

But Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, told me the current crisis can’t block the road forward:

What is needed now is for continued pressure… to make sure that there is true protection of civilians, to ensure that the will of the Ivorian people as expressed in the elections of November 2010 is respected, but also to look toward what’s needed in the Ivory Coast, which is this national healing and reconciliation….. one consistent refrain that you hear throughout the country from some of the people of Cote d’Ivoire is that they’re tired of war.

Commentator Ayo Johnson, in an email exchange, said that in the regional political context, "the Ivorians have a responsibility not only to live in peace but to prevent West Africa from decline."

But it’s hard to fathom how Ivorians will chart their own destiny from here on, now that international forces, mainly France and the United Nations, have taken a stake in charting it for them. Will the country’s political process be dogged by anxieties about post-colonial interference? On the flipside, will remnants of the old regime use the presence of former colonizer France as a pretext for continued fighting, playing on familiar anti-Western-imperialist rhetoric? 

And once the conflict is resolved, can factions that have so far single-mindedly pursued their own communities’ interests reorient themselves toward rebuilding as one nation? Woods notes that Ouattara, as "president of the entire country," must "first and foremost hold people accountable, including people who were his supporters that violated human rights," in accordance with U.N. and ECOWAS resolutions.  

Today, as the battles in Abidjan drag on and diplomatic interventions proceed in fits and starts, just thinking about the pending challenge of "national reconciliation" is an exhausting exercise. Then again, nothing compares to the fatigue of endless war, and that is what the Ivorian people understand all too well, and what the global community, in turning away from West Africa over the past decade, has allowed itself to forget.