The Ivoirian Crisis: Why the Worries Remain – Part One of a two-part series by Dr Michael J.K. Bokor

The ongoing crisis in the Ivory Coast gives a twisted meaning to African politics: How could Alasane Dramane Ouattara serve as the Prime Minister of the Ivory Coast yet be seen by Gbagbo and his supporters as ineligible to be the country’s President because of allegations that he is a citizen of Burkina Faso and not the Ivory Coast? This twisted logic is at the core of the crisis and must not be overlooked.

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Ouattara was Prime Minister of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire from November 1990 until December 1993, and a winner of the “Grand Officier of the National Order of Côte d’Ivoire” award. Records indicate that he was born in Dimbokro, Côte d’Ivoire, on January 1, 1942. Any claim that he is a Burkinabe and shouldn’t be the Ivoirian President flies in the face of precedent.

The major cause of the current crisis is obvious: Ouattara is seen by many countries as the legitimate winner of the November 28 Presidential election. But Gbagbo has refused to step down after being buoyed up by the ruling in his favour by the country’s Constitutional Council, headed by one of his allies. Both Ouattara and Gbagbo have installed themselves as Presidents. One country, two rival Presidents! An abomination, indeed.

Within this context, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call for a united approach to resolving the ongoing poll dispute in the Ivory Coast must be supported wholeheartedly and decisive measures taken to stabilize that country. Coming in the wake of failed preliminary efforts to resolve the crisis, this call must be acted on to prevent any further deterioration of the situation.

Speaking at the just-ended African Union summit, Mr. Ban said the world should “stand firm” against attempts by incumbent leader, Laurent Gbagbo, to cling on to power. Both the UN and AU recognize Mr. Gbagbo’s challenger, Alassane Ouattara, as the Ivory Coast’s President-elect; but Gbagbo and forces loyal to him are ill-prepared to accept him. For reasons that I will explain later, it appears that a Ouattara Presidency may be long in coming—but it should be the best option for the Ivoirians.

Meanwhile, the AU has waded more deeply into the conflict-resolution efforts by setting up a panel of five African leaders to “find a legally-binding settlement to the Ivorian dispute within a month,” reports say. I have some qualms here already, especially in connection with the phrase “legally-binding settlement.” By whose standards or estimation will any settlement be considered as “legally-binding”? By the AU’s own norms? Who will endorse the settlement to make it “binding”? Gbagbo will definitely not do so if it doesn’t favour him. And how will this panel manage to come out with a settlement that will serve the interests of both parties (Ouattara and Gbagbo) simultaneously? Does the AU even have a back-up plan if the efforts of the five-member panel fail?

This move by the AU comes after earlier mediation efforts led by its appointed mediator on Cote d’Ivoire (Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga) had failed. Why did Odinga’s efforts fail, and what guarantee is there that the new initiative will deliver the required lasting solution to the crisis? Or is the AU’s panel going to start all over from scratch with its own blueprint? The snail’s pace at which efforts to settle this crisis have been moving suggests something ominous. The more time Gbagbo gets, the more likely it is that he will dig himself in and consolidate his hold on the situation. After all, the entire apparatus of state is still under his command and control, and he may be emboldened by the split in opinions about how to deal with the situation.

How Some African Leaders Have Spoilt the Case

Fears abound that the ranks of the AU are already split over how to handle the Ivoirian crisis. Hence, the UN Secretary-General’s appeal: “We must preserve our unified position, act together, and stand firm against Mr. Gbagbo’s attempt to hang onto power through the use of force.” The apparent split in African efforts to end the Ivorian crisis was not lost on the UN Chief. The AU is backing Mr. Ouattara, who is running a parallel government from a hotel in Abidjan which Gbagbo’s forces have blockaded. However, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, suggested earlier last week that the UN should not have recognized Ouattara so quickly.

Separately, Gbagbo’s call for a vote recount has been taken up by some African leaders who appear increasingly reluctant to resort to the military option suggested by the West African bloc, ECOWAS. This vote recount is not a popular suggestion and will not be the solution to the impasse. Gbagbo is just seeking to buy time with it.

So far, some African countries have also remained troublingly silent over where they stand on the issue. Not making their stance known sends a disturbing signal that there is no consensus in the AU on how to decisively handle the crisis. Gbagbo will definitely seek to exploit this laxity.

I daresay that this split in the ranks of the AU serves notice that any action that the AU will take in accordance with the suggestions of the five-member panel may not get the full backing of member-states. Such a divided front cannot solve the Ivoirian crisis, which reinforces my worries that the AU lacks bite. Thus, an African initiative to resolve the crisis is already coming across as a non-starter, a half-hearted approach. We should be worried at what the Ivoirian crisis will lead to if not dealt with decisively.

As usual, some are looking up to outsiders to solve this typical African problem. A delegation that met the US President on how to involve the United States in handling the problem is yet to tell us what it achieved. No one has yet sought help from France, the former colonial master of the Ivory Coast, which has been seriously accused by Gbagbo of masterminding the crisis.

The Forgotten History

The ethnic card is being dangerously dangled in the face of Ivoirians to provoke dissension against Ouattara. Gbagbo and opponents of Ouattara have adduced the most virulent reason that he is not an Ivoirian citizen and shouldn’t be allowed to rule the country. They opine that ceding the Presidency to him means legitimizing an illegality. This recourse to ethnicity opens the electoral dispute to further complications. But it is a vain attempt at confusing people.

As the vicissitudes of the Ivoirian politics would have it, Alassane Ouattara was once the Prime Minister of La Cote d’Ivoire under the late Houphouet-Boigny’s Presidency. At that time, no one raised any finger to brand him as a non-Ivoirian citizen. Today, the major factor that seems to be fuelling discontent at his Presidency is the claim that he is a Burkinabe. Those opposed to his Presidency are quick to say that his parents were not Ivoirian citizens but Burkinabe who sojourned in the country and had him there. So, according to the Ivoirian precepts on citizenship, Ouattara is not a bona fide Ivoirian citizen. And, of course, as an “outsider,” he is ineligible to rule the country, they claim. In a plain language, therefore, Gbagbo and his followers don’t want to accept Ouattara as the President of La Cote d’Ivoire.

Be that as it may, this claim raises a very important question that none of the Ouattara haters have so far attempted answering: If Ouattara could serve as the Prime Minister of La Cote d’Ivoire under Houphouet-Boigny’s Presidency—and be accepted and given due recognition and allegiance by the Ivoirian citizens as such—what prevents himself from rising to the top as the Ivoirian President long after Houphouet-Boigny’s death? In effect, what recommended him to serve as the country’s Prime Minister at that time but cannot now allow him to be its President?

This question alone should prick the conscience of Ouattara’s opponents enough for them to know that they are just being mischievous by supporting the wrong cause. They will be helping to resolve the crisis if they realize that what they are using to deny Ouattara the right to rule the country was settled long ago by precedent.

Another twist to the matter seems to have been glossed over. Ouattara held important positions at the International Monetary Fund as an Ivoirian citizen, not a Burkinabe, and the whole world recognized him as such. So, what has happened since then to divest him of that Ivoirian extraction? After all these years of functioning as an Ivoirian, it is plain absurdity for anybody to ring the ethnic bell against.

In previous times, some strong-arm measures were adopted to intimidate him and physically prevent him from contesting the Presidential elections. As Fate would have it, this time round, he sailed through and the outcome of the elections suggests that he is the legitimate winner, regardless of the loud-mouthed protests from Gbagbo and his supporters that electoral malpractices in his stronghold in the north of the country favoured him. That is the lame excuse that Gbagbo has raised in calling for a recount of the votes.

In this imbroglio, Gbagbo stands culpable. He is at the center of all the instability that has rocked this country since he became President 10 years ago. The problems that led to the division of the country into two halves were not caused by Ouattara but by Gbagbo and previous leaders of the Ivory Coast who discriminated against the North. So, if the electorate in the North didn’t vote for Gbagbo, he must accept their verdict in good faith and stop raising unnecessary tension. Uniting the country is a daunting task that must be done at all costs for the country to regain its stature.

To be continued…