Alassane Ouattara, Ernest Bai Koroma and Water Kansteiner

A Conversation with Ernest Bai Koroma and Alassane Ouattara

In between high-level UN meetings, the Clinton Global Initiative and the slew of events taking place this week in New York, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Africa-America Institute organized an intimate lunch time get-together with the presidents of Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, Alassane Ouattara and Ernest Bai Koroma.

As one might expect from such high level conversations with heads of state, the discussion was fairly general in nature. The moderator, Walter Kansteiner (Exxon Mobil Senior Director for Africa), focused the conversation on post-conflict development. While Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone are both considered “post-conflict”, neither country has recently emerged from protracted warfare – it’s been almost a decade for Sierra Leone, and the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire – though it was intense and costly in terms of lives and livelihoods – lasted only a few months. So the focus on “post-conflict” was interesting to me. It became clear, as the conversation progressed, that indeed both Ouattara and Koroma have some powerful insights into nation-(re)building.

On reconciliation

Alassane Ouattara

Given Ouattara’s recent struggle for power, he was – understandably – at the center of most of the discussion. On the topic of reconciliation, he noted that the “basic elements of reconciliation are equity and justice”. On the justice front, as I’ve written here before, the wheels are in motion: indictments against Laurent Gbagbo, willingness to turn over investigations to international bodies and accepting the ICC’s jurisdiction for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The equity side of the equation is less straight forward, however, a more complex and nuanced undertaking. Ouattara spoke of restructuring the armed forces with an eye towards this notion of equity: rewarding people who had been loyal to him without shutting out Gbagbo supporters and the “old guard”. Ouattara said that in this process of reconciliation, while he understands the impatience, “time is a crucial element.” After all, he’s only been at the helm of the country for a mere 4 months – understandably, there are still many, many layers of reconciliation that have yet to be dealt with. It’s encouraging though to hear Ouattara speak with sensitivity about these processes.

On regional organizations

Both Koroma and Outtara spoke candidly of the role of ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). Ouattara especially, in light of the recent crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, had some rather scathing comments about the AU. “I’m very disappointed with the AU”, he said. He spoke of their lack of efficiency, and how the various commissions aren’t well organized, making decision making difficult. Ouattara said that he believed “getting [the AU] to work better should be a priority.” Though he couched it in more nuanced terms, Koroma echoed Ouattara’s feeling. He began diplomatically by noting that the AU “had come a long way”, that the institution has had challenges linked not only to structure and organization, but also mandate. He argued that “we have to transform the whole concept of the AU”, to enhance the completeness of its mandate and decision making, giving it “the authority to implement decisions”. While neither president elaborated on what exaclty an “enhanced” AU might look like, they both clearly expressed disappointment with the AU.

The two presidents spoke of strengthening ECOWAS, the sub-regional organization. Speaking about the crisis that rocked his country earlier in the year, Ouattara mentioned that he and his people knew they had “the capacity to remove Gbagbo by force”, and that the question was “should we do it ourselves or wait for ECOWAS/the UN/ AU to step in”. The decision to pursue the matter diplomatically, through international fora. ECOWAS and the AU were involved early on in conflict resolution efforts, but to no avail. Eventually, in late March, when diplomatic efforts failed, Ouattara forces took over the country – minus Abidjan – in less than a week. Ouattara noted that it was important for international forces to step in at that point in the crisis because Gbagbo had accumulated heavy weaponry and killing civilians indiscriminately. “Gbagbo had all kinds of imported weapons”, said Ouattara, “I will not name countries, though we do know where they come from.” He noted that the proliferation of this kind of weapons was one of the key reasons for seeking UN involvement – an interesting perspective on the way the conflict unfolded. Ouattara then argued that he believed in the doctrine of R2P (Responsibility To Protect), that the notion “should be expanded under UN leadership.”

On risk perception and moving past “blood diamonds”

When asked about key economic policies in the post-conflict phase, Koroma strongly emphasized the importance of creating an “open, transparent and attractive” environment for foreign investment. So much of attracting foreign investment in post-conflict countries has to do with the perception of risk, and Sierra Leone is working hard to show a new face to the world. “We’re no longer the country of blood diamonds. The country has changed dramatically”, Koroma said. Koroma also spoke about inclusiveness, that elusive concept, which, like equity in reconciliation, is a complex and difficult notion to operationalize in policy.

On the specificities of “post-conflict” development

Being a “post-conflict” country means dealing with all sorts of grievances, pain and injustice. Scars of war and conflict run deep can be potent social, political and economic factors and alter the way in which governments think about development. Koroma noted that development is a “delicate process”, that “deliberate policies of inclusiveness” are necessary to ensure that development is “even.” More so than in simply poor or unequal countries, post-conflict societies have to grapple with the injustices or grievances that were at the root of the conflict. For countries like Côte d’Ivoire or Sierra Leone, having legitimate, democratically elected leaders that have the interest of the entire population at heart is critical. Ouattara said that when former Ivoirian president Gbagbo spoke on TV, he would always “blame others” – other ethnicities, foreigners, etc. Moving past a divisive discourse, focusing on inclusion and reconciliation – in addition to all the other challenges of reducing poverty and economic growth – are some of the key elements of nation building.