Continuing Split in Ivory Coast Threatens West African Democracy

A sadly typical headline flashed up on the newswires recently - 'In Ivory Coast, Two Presidents Claim Office'. This is a disastrous outcome for the recent elections in the country, but not completely unexpected, considering the political situation in the West African country.

Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo was never going to simply give up power over his hot and steamy dominion. For years an activist and opposition politician, he took his position in 2000 through a coup, claiming that he had in fact beaten the president, Robert Guei, in an election. Guei himself had taken power through a coup in 1999, in the years of upheaval after the death of long-term leader Houphouët-Boigny. That 'Father of the Nation' ruled with an iron grip, maintaining calm over three decades in a country where religious, tribal and ethnic rivalries can quickly become enflamed.


Gbagbo resisted a coup attempt in 2002 led by elements of the military from the north of the country. The North is predominantly Muslim and with a large number of people of foreign descent, whose families arrived in Ivory Coast from neighbouring countries to work in agriculture during the years of economic boom after colonial power France left in the 1960's. The people of the south are mostly Christian, and regard themselves as 'true' Ivorians. This conception, of difference between people with true Ivorian blood and foreigners, became known as 'Ivorite', and was used to discriminate against and disenfranchise those of the north, as well as preventing some northern politicians from participating in elections. This meant that much of the Northern population initially supported the coup against Gbagbo, who was seen by them as a southern, Christian leader.

The 2002 coup leaders were beaten back from Abidjan, the capital in all but name on the southern coast. Troops loyal to Gbagbo maintained control in the bottom half of the country, but the rebels took Bouaké, a city in the centre where they dug in with a significant cadre of soldiers. In control of the northern half of the country, they called themselves the Forces Nouvelles (FN).

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The United Nations sent troops to separate the two sides. After years of negotiations and clashes, they maintained an uneasy truce from around 2004 onwards. Gbagbo continued as president, five years past his term limit in 2005. He stymied chances of elections, continually finding fault in various issues, from electoral lists to disarmament by the FN. His troops, on a constant war footing, maintained a significant presence on the streets of the southern territory, allowing themselves to bleed the local population dry through bribery and unofficial 'taxes'. In the north, the FN proceeded to act as if they were a legitimate government, 'taxing' locals and stamping passports on the borders. This writer has never seen a more efficient system of bribery than that found at the borders of FN controlled territory, where a set price is paid by all, who queue up to hand over their cash. The people are not happy to do so, but have been beaten down by years of what is essentially an occupation. Electricity and water, still provided by utility companies in the south, are intermittent. Jobs are scarce, with joining the rebels often the only source of income. The people no longer support the FN, who simply prey on the populace. Recent estimates put the amount paid in bribery in Ivory Coast at $300m annually.

This year, Gbagbo found he could prevaricate no more and submitted to the long awaited election in November. His main opponent was Alassane Ouattara, a northern Muslim and an ex-prime minister and economist who Gbagbo had tried to exclude from politics in the past on the principle of Ivorite. Ouattara has the backing of the FN. The elections were to re-unite the country and de-militarise the streets and politics of Ivory Coast.

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The Northerner won the first round of the presidential election by a clear but small margin of 54% to 46%. Gbabgo retaliated by having the Constitutional Council proclaim him the victor after annulling the vote in several northern regions amid claims of voting irregularities. Both contenders took the oath of office on 4 December, proclaiming themselves president.

Gbabgo is coming under severe international pressure to stand down, with the official electoral result being recognised by the UN, the EU and the African Union. ECOWAS, the West African economic bloc, akin to the EU, has suspended Ivory Coast until Ouattara takes over.

The international community does not seem to be prepared to give in to Gbabgos blatant power grab and is showing unusual cohesion of message and action. The World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank have frozen lending, a debt relief deal worth $3bn has been put on hold and the US is considering sanctions for Gbabgo and his entourage. Consideration is being given by CFA Franc zone finance ministers to facilitating Ouattaras request for authority over government accounts at the West African Central Bank, which would leave Gbabgo unable to pay salaries. Coordinated international and regional measures have worked against coup leaders in Niger, Togo and Guinea in the past year, indicating that there is hope for this kind of pressure having real power to effect change in such situations.

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It is suspected that Gbabgo is vying for a power-sharing arrangement with Ouattra, if not full presidential power. He is avoiding contact with outsiders, refusing to take a phone call from President Obama recently. He is hiding out in the Presidential Palace with supporters, heavily guarded. Many of the local population in Abidjan support him, as do the army.

Ouattara is currently holed up in a hotel in central Abidjan, surrounded by UN tanks, also running his version of the government. Soon his supporters will march on the national media stations and hold demonstrations. Guillaume Soro, leader of the FN and the Prime Minister of Gbabgos’ (in a power sharing agreement) and now Ouattaras’ government, says he will hold a meeting in the prime ministers office this week. The city is bracing itself for clashes. Refugees have already begun leaving the country and foreign governments have told their citizens to leave. A demonstration on 15 December in Yamoussoukro, the actual capital of Ivory Coast, saw soldiers kill one protestor.

The BBC describes the situation thus; "Ivory Coast has two presidents and multiple paradoxes, the main one being that the legitimate president-elect has sworn himself in unconstitutionally while the defeated incumbent has refused to relinquish power and used the constitution to undermine democracy".


It is a uniquely Ivorian mess, but unfortunately just a new variation on a West African theme. If Gbabgo succeeds, it will send a message to others in the region that elections don't matter, as a defeated leader can just change the election result and use constitutionalism to subvert democracy. With neighbouring countries like Liberia, Sierra Leon and Guinea emerging from their own nightmares and struggling with their own democracies and elections, having Ivory Coast fall victim to such a failure of governance would be a disaster for the region.

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For further background on the conflict in Ivory Coast, see a piece by Tom Rowe in the September English language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique:


All photos taken by Tom Rowe in Ivory Coast 2010.

1. Girls shelter from the midday sun in a ruined colonial French mansion in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast.

2. Soldiers of the Ivorian army drive tanks and armoured vehicles through the streets of Abidjan in May 2010.

3. A boy does his homework on the street outside his family business, a CD and cassette shop in Abidjan.

4. A mother and daughter sell cigarettes and tissue paper from their roadside stall in Grand Bassam.

5. A surreptitious photo of FN soldiers 'inspecting' buses at one of many checkpoints on the main Bouake-Abidjan road, a major thoroughfare.