Development Economics

Cote D’Ivoire and the “Big Man” in African Politics

The big news in West Africa (and the rest of the world) is the election crisis in Cote D'Ivoire, the next-door neighbor of Ghana. I have talked to a lot of people about what's happening and have tried to learn as much as I can about the issue. Basically, Cote D'Ivoire recently held a presidential election. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, is a former history professor who took became president in 2000 in a contested election. Despite losing the most recent election to Alassaine Ouattara, a technocrat and economist from the predominantly Muslim north, Gbagbo is refusing to step down. Both men have been sworn in as president, though Ouattara is holding court in a hotel surrounded by 700 UN peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the entire world has condemned Gbagbo and called for him to step down. Gbagbo, the consummate "big man," has no intention of leaving anytime soon. Most recently, the new Ivorian UN ambassador (appointed by Ouattara) told the international community that Cote D'Ivoire is on the brink of genocide. 173 people have already been killed, and, unfortunately, that is probably just the beginning. My first reaction was that what is happening in Cote D'Ivoire is, for lack of a better word, cliche, given the historical precedent of tainted democratic elections in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The more I read, the it became clear that I am not alone.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course.  Ghana is a great example of a stable democracy.  So much so, in fact, that President Obama chose Ghana as the site of his first speech to Africa.  But why don't these proverbial big men just step aside?  The whole world is against you, you are broke and hanging on by a very thin thread, and refusing to capitulate to the will of your own people will likely result in the deaths of thousands of your people and will set the development your country back decades.   So why not step aside? (more…)