Côte d’Ivoire’s “Classic” Strongman

Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent in Côte d’Ivoire’s recent presidential election, is pulling a classic strong-man move. Gbagbo, who has been at the head of the country since 2000, is refusing to accept the election results announced by national electoral commission which declared his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the presidential election. “This is an electoral stick-up” Philippe Hugon, a French analyst, told Le Monde.

Following the announcement by the electoral commission last week – which Gbagbo supporters physically attempted to prevent – that Ouattara won with 54% of the vote, Côte d’Ivoire’s Constitutional Council reversed the decision. The Constitutional Council, however, is headed by a Gbagbo partisan, and outside of the country’s state-owned media, its decision is considered to be a last ditch attempt to retain power for a president who has continually demonstrated his determination to shut out political opposition. Gbagbo, who also has the support of the country’s army, was sworn in for a third term at the presidential palace over the weekend, while Alassane Ouattara was also sworn in at a hotel in the capital.

Since results were released last week, foreign media has been silenced in Côte d’Ivoire.  State-owned radio, television, and pro-Gbagbo newspapers have accused French media outlets of trying to destabilize the country by publishing the results put forward by the electoral commission. Meanwhile, Gbagbo ordered a curfew in Abidjan, and for borders to be closed. Three hundred refugees – mainly women and children – have reportedly fled to neighboring Liberia following post-electoral violence, in which at least four people have died.

The international community – among which the UN Security Council, the United States, France, the African Union and ECOWAS – is backing the electoral commission, and calling for Gbagbo to accept his defeat. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from Gbagbo has been to dismiss what he considers to be foreign interference in Côte d’Ivoire’s sovereign politics. These developments, along with the Constitutional Council’s ruling and the hasty swearing at the presidential palace, are textbook efforts by an autocratic ruler to hang on to power.

Côte d’Ivoire was a shining example of success in West Africa for decades following independence. With a strong economy and peaceful inter-ethnic coexistence, the country was one of the first in sub-Saharan Africa to see gleaming high-rises built in its capital. For years under the leadership of autocrat Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Côte d’Ivoire’s export-based economy thrived and it maintained close economic, military and political relations with France, its former colonial ruler. But the country’s stability has been strongly jeopardized by a series of coups and political crises beginning in 1999, when Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s successor, Henry Bédié, was toppled by a military coup. Since 2002, the country has been split along a North-South divide, with Laurent Gbagbo retaining control over the southern portion of the country (with the capital, and access to ports). Many believe that there is little hope for reunification if Gbagbo remains head of state; probably one of the key reasons for his defeat in the presidential election.

A historically heterogenous country, with various religious and cultural influences, unlike most of its neighbors in the region, Cte d’Ivoire’s socio-political landscape remained unmarred by ethnic tensions for a long time. But, in the 1990s, in the context of a deteriorating economy, the notion of “ivoirité” emerged as a way for politicians to single out and place blame on particular ethnic groups for the country’s woes. This concept of “ivoirité” was used to sideline Alassane Ouattara, the presumed winner of the current presidential election, in a previous poll.

The manipulation of ethnic divides, “divide and rule” political strategies, and a precarious peace have allowed Gbagbo to stay in power for much longer than he should have. The results of the November 28th run-off, which hand victory to Ouattara, are one step towards repairing the country’s damaged political landscape. The next step towards restoring democracy in Côte d’Ivoire is for Laurent Gbagbo to accept his defeat.

Analysts agree that it’s one man’s responsibility to resolve the deadlock. No one – not the people of Côte d’Ivoire, not the international community – is fooled by Gbagbo’s desperate attempts to hang on to this presidential office. It’s time for Côte d’Ivoire’s strong man to step aside and let democracy function, in order to avoid much uglier scenarios for this situation to be resolved.