Ivory Coast: a difficult but possible future after Gbagbo

On Monday April 18th, 2011 I was a guest speaker of Press TV at a discussion panel on the situation in Ivory Coast after the capture of Laurent Gbagbo with the help of French and UN forces. Other panellists included Ayo Johnson from Viewpoint Africa and Prof. Okey Ojekewe from the Center for Sustainable Governance. The presenter and producer of the programme – Africa Today, was Henry Bonzu.

The discussion focused on what Alassane Ouattara urgent priorities would be; the question of the contested external intervention in some international and African political circles, and also the future of the country which for the last decade experienced division between the Christian south and Muslim north.

It appeared from exchanges between panellists that there are important issues at hand for the new leader. Firstly, the issue of his credibility is contested.  A number of Ivoirians regard him as a foreigner and someone who has been placed into a position of power by external actors.  Secondly, on the agenda was the problem of the atrocities committed by both camps; in particular, those which occurred during the power struggle which escalated after the general elections in November 2010. Both sides, Gbagbo and Ouatarra’s, disputed the outcome for different reasons.

The new president’s approach to these issues will inevitably determine the course of the country’s future.  He has promised to set up a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. The outcome of the work of this commission, however, will only be as good as the fairness with which it deals with crimes committed by both sides. Using Rwanda as a case study, an International Court Tribunal for Rwanda was set up in September 1994 to investigate and judge perpetrators of crimes committed during the Rwandan genocide.  Seventeen years later, it’s fair to say that this tribunal has failed in its mission to reconcile Rwandans because of its one-sidedness.

Views about the external intervention among panellists were divergent. It emerged that the intervention in Ivory Coast, where foreign forces engaged militarily with one of the sides could not be compared with another French intervention on African soil back in 1994. Ivory Coast now is not what Rwanda was then. Both interventions were authorised by the UN; with Rwanda, the UN mandate was humanitarian and the intervention followed suit. With Ivory Coast, although the mandate was also humanitarian, the intervention, so far, has evolved into a military engagement.  Looking at other interventions, we can see that in the case of Sierra Leone, British troops helped to bring some lasting peace in a country which had known significant atrocities. None of these interventions, despite the rhetoric surrounding them, have proven to be done in the spirit of total altruism. Commercial and political interests are always at play.

Ouattara faces many problems. His credibility is standing on shaky foundations. He has been labelled a “foreigner” thanks to Gbagbo’s Donald Trump-like accusations (his parents are from Burkina Faso). And to top it off, he has not been voted in by a significant majority of Ivorians. However, there is light at the end of this political tunnel. For Ouattara, these problems can’t be solved immediately, although there are important steps he can make to qualm the uneasy electorate. Firstly he should set up a genuine government of national unity and develop policies which objectively serve national interests. By withstanding pressure from external stakeholders, he can gain the heart of his people. On this front, how he engages with his opponent Laurent Gbagbo and the way he works with the pro-Gbagbo supporters, will play a major role in this equation. South Africa, in dealing with the end of Apartheid, had a new political leadership which held the interests of the black majority and white minority close to heart and found a way of striking the right balance juggling their particularly delicate social issues.

The issue which remained at the end of the panel discussion was that of the validity of democratic ethos among African leaders, as Prof. Okey Ojekewe pointed out. We have seen time and again a number of African presidents finding hard to leave power once they are there. They seem to think they are entitled to lifetime presidency and do what they can to remain there for as long as possible.  As we have seen with Gbagbo, and continue to witness it with Zenawi of Ethiopia, Bashir of Sudan, Museveni of Uganda, Kagame of Rwanda, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Compaore of Burkina Faso, and many others around the continent, can Ouattara and other African leaders who should objectively leave power learn the lesson once for all that change is beneficial though it may sometimes be painful? That once it is successfully accepted, and seen as natural, it becomes a norm synonymous with democracy in action.

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