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?

Well, it turns out it is much more complicated than that.  The problem is systemic, and has its roots in – surprise, surprise – colonialism.  The big men that dominate so many country are a symptom of political system that is simply out-of-context.  Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs under 43, explains this dynamic in a dense op-ed:

[The] fixation on the personal failings of leaders obscures the deeper problem: a fundamental disjuncture between Africa’s modern political institutions and its ethnic communities and traditional institutions. This disjuncture, so well reflected in Cote d’Ivoire, is at the heart of the continent’s crisis of governance. Contemporary African states are poorly functioning hybrids of indigenous cultures and customs mixed with Arab and European models of governance that arrived with invasions, colonialism and migration.

Well, shit.  So it turns out that the whole damned system is flawed and practically designed to fail.  The deep and long-standing ethnic conflicts that are vestiges of arbitrary boundaries drawn by colonial powers during the 19th century make the establishment of a functioning and transparent democracy difficult, if not impossible.  The local and regional systems of governance, drawn on tribal and ethnic lines, is incompatible with the kind of democracy in which the president has a disproportionate amount of power in the absence of credible checks and balances.  In Sudan, an upcoming referendum calls for independence for Southern Sudan from the predominantly Muslim and comparatively resource-poor North.  If successful, Southern Sudan will become its own nation drawn on lines that make a lot more sense than the current set-up.  So how does this principle apply to Cote D’Ivoire?  Back to Frazer:

The crisis in Côte d’Ivoire manifests a deep rift between the largely Muslim north and Christian south exacerbated by ethnic tensions – a result of colonial borders drawn without regard for the integrity of African ethnic communities. Since Côte d’Ivoire’s borders cut across principal ethnic groups that have a significant presence in neighboring countries, every crisis is a regional crisis.

The resulting cross-national divisions have been preyed upon by politicians willing to ride ethnic bigotry and regional chauvinism into power. Ouattara, for instance, was prevented by coup leader General Robert Guei from contesting the 2000 election based on highly exclusivist “Iviorite” citizenship laws intended to disenfranchise northerners considered of foreign parentage.

The conflict is, in a word, nuanced.  Here is another explanation:

In Cote d’Ivoire’s politics, these are toxic issues. Gbagbo is from the Bete ethnic group. Ouattara is from the Dioula ethnic group. Gbagbo and his associates from the south see Ouattara and his group from the north as foreigners or immigrants.

Clouded by tribal thinking, the southern elites and the military threw away the security of the country and the Ivoirian realities. They inverted the impartiality of the Independent Electoral Commission that is supervised by the United Nations and that said Ouattara had won the presidential run-off with 54 per cent of the votes.

Gbagbo, 65, looks down on the likes of Ouattara, 68, whom he and others see as less of an Ivoirian because of his ethnic background. It does not matter whether Ouattara was a former Prime Minister. Add tribalism to the egoistic African “Big Man Syndrome” and you get a Cote d’Ivoire in eternally unpredictable chaos. Gbagbo, who has ruled for 10 years, is expected to know better and do away with such warped thinking.

So what to do?  If democracy has failed, what is the best form of government for a country like Cote D’Ivoire?  Every country has a unique profile and must be treated differently.  National identity must be taken into account.  By exploiting these deep ethnic divisions, politicians marginalize much of the population, which leads to unrest and the kind of conflict happening right now.  Overcoming these divisions is not easy, but its not impossible either.  President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has emerged as a positive force in overcoming the devastating aftermath of a brutal genocide.  In the most recent “Doing Business” survey from the World Bank, Rwanda ranked 58th out of 183 countries.  Pretty good for a country that only fifteen years ago saw a genocide that resulted in more than 800,000 (!) people killed.  But even Kagame is not without his critics.  According to the Economist, Kagame “allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe.” Clearly, there is a tradeoff between free and transparent government and the ability to get things done.

For that reason, African nations are increasingly looking to the example of China for a model of governance:

From the perspective of Africa’s challenges, it is not surprising that many leaders are today looking East as much as West for a model of governance even as they seek to restore certain indigenous ways. While Africans would certainly benefit from the rule of law, protection of individual liberties and separation of powers, the fact is that multiparty elections have not delivered sustained results or avoided violence. In this light, the Chinese model, with its emphasis on social harmony, political stability and rapid growth, seems more relevant to many – especially as China’s presence grows across the continent.

Africa’s best hope is finding a middle way of governance that is inclusive and rooted in the legitimacy of its own ways, but borrows pragmatically from East and West to fit its challenges. Africa’s answer may be another hybrid form of governance, but one constructed by Africans themselves instead of imposed from the outside.

In Cote D’Ivoire, everyone is hoping for the best.  Gbagbo must find a way to step down without losing face, and also guarantee amnesty for himself so that he doesn’t end up like Charles Taylor.  I think what he is gunning for is a Zimbabwe arrangement, where there is a power-sharing agreement between the two in which he maintains the military and the upper hand.  I don’t know.  But unfortunately, without solving the underlying systemic problems, history has a tendency to repeat itself.

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