What Laurent Gbagbo Taught Me About His Commitment to Democracy

Ed note: This is a special guest post from Robert Skinner.  Robb is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who was stationed in Cote D’Ivoire and now serves as the associate director of the UN Foundation’s New York office.  Disclosure.

As I’ve watched with great interest, and also sadness, the political crisis in Cote d’Ivoire unfold, I’ve been thinking about a car accident I watched when I lived in Abidjan in 1999 and 2000. A State Department friend and I were stuck in full gridlock at a main intersection when we were amazed to see one of the ubiquitous orange taxis inching forward – there was nowhere to go except into the taxi blocking its path. The driver kept going with his carload of passengers until he hit the other vehicle, and then kept pushing. The other driver emerged, screaming and gesturing wildly, and the chaos and traffic, predictably, became even worse as the two drivers shouted at each other, while others assessed the results of the slow motion collision. Damage was done, but no people were hurt.

In today’s political standoff, the presidential election loser, Laurent Gbagbo, seems intent on slowly pushing on, testing the will of the United Nations, the African Union, and the entire international community. Like the taxi driver, he is putting himself in a position in which he has no place to go, until there is a collision. In this case, though, hundreds of people have already been killed, and the threat of renewed civil war is real. To avoid the latter, the international community, led by UN Secretary-General Ban and AU Heads of State, must hold firm, keep their composure in the face of Mr. Gbagbo’s posturing, and help him find a way out of the box he has put himself in. So far, the united international front has been impressive and must continue to be so.

This may be difficult, as Mr. Gbagbo has proven true to his word when confronted and has not hesitated to resort to violence. Most journalists’ stories covering the current post-election crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, provide background on the situation going back to the 2002-2003 civil war that divided the country between the north and the south. The stories explain that the internationally recognized 2010 election winner, Alassane Ouattara, is mainly supported by northerners and that Mr. Gbagbo’s supports from the south. While this is true, the roots of this fight go back further than the civil war, and the basis of both men’s sense of a “right” to lead the country do as well.

Mr. Ouattara is a former Prime Minister of Cote d’Ivoire and a respected international civil servant, having worked at the IMF. Mr. Gbagbo was the perennial opposition and vocal opponent of Cote d’Ivoire’s first leader and “President for Life,” Felix Houphouet-Boigny. When the globe’s final coup d’etat of the millennium took place on December 24, 1999, overthrowing Houphouet-Boigny’s hand-picked successor, Henri Konan Bedie, both men saw their chance to step in as the rightful new leader of the nation. General Robert Guei, who led the coup felt differently, as most military coup leaders do, and tried to hold on to power, first by eliminating Mr. Ouattara from running for President on vague and ever-changing citizenship requirements, and then trying to steal the already questionable October 2000 election from Mr. Gbagbo.

The short version of the story following the 2000 election is: Gbagbo supporters take to the streets, followed by Ouattara supporters, violence ensues and eventually Gbagbo is named president and promises inclusive elections; the new vote keeps getting pushed off and civil war ensues, which is then ended through diplomatic means and the presence of UN and French peacekeepers; the vote finally takes place in December 2010.

During the period following the coup and up to the 2000 election, I met with Mr. Gbagbo and his close team of supporters on several occasions, including with Charles Ble Goude, who is currently under UN sanctions for his role in anti-UN and anti-northerner violence. Prior to the election, they all told me they would take to the streets if Guei tried to steal the election – they did. Gbagbo and his team believed firmly in his right to be the next leader of Cote d’Ivoire – he’d been the opposition waiting in the wings for years, the only opposition – it was their turn! In Mr. Gbagbo’s thinking, he had fought for justice, he had won the election, and he was going to take power. And with his promises of democracy and the most votes in the sham election, Mr. Gbagbo took power with the grudging agreement of the international community.

And I, like many, believed his promises. I saw Laurent Gbagbo as he claimed himself to be – a democrat and champion of those left behind in the economic “Ivoirian miracle.” I was wrong. What Mr. Gbagbo saw as his right, he has refused to yield. He pretended to be a democrat only as it has served his needs. He is trying to follow the sad path of many leaders before him.

But, times have changed. I’m not sure Mr. Gbagbo saw it coming, but the UN, the international community, and most impressively, the African Union, have said “enough.” UN Secretary-General Ban has kept the UN Peacekeeping force in place, guarding the safety of the population and of Mr. Ouattara. The UN General Assembly and AU have recognized Mr. Ouattara as the winner and true President of Cote d’Ivoire. Negotiations continue, but there has been no sign that the international community will budge.

So far, Mr. Gbagbo has only inched himself closer to this united front and not yet forced the collision. Let’s hope he breaks from his past and stops here, allowing himself, his country, and the West African region to avoid the violence and chaos that will surely follow if he stays on his current, foolish path.