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The Blackmail Path to Power

ABIDJAN – On December 2, Côte d’Ivoire’s Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the country’s November presidential election with 54.1% of the vote. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, gained 45.9%. The United States, European Union, Canada, and United Nations Secretary-General all congratulated Ouattara and called on Gbagbo to respect the people’s will.

One day after the result was announced, the country’s Constitutional Council, led by Gbagbo’s close ally Paul Yao N’Dre, annulled the results from seven departments in the north, declaring Gbagbo the winner of the election with 51% of the vote. The decision, reached in less than 24 hours, left many Ivorians flabbergasted. UN Special Envoy for Côte d’Ivoire Choi Young-jin was categorical, stating that “the proclamation of the final results by the President of the Constitutional Council…which makes candidate Laurent Gbagbo the winner of the second round, can only be interpreted as a decision having no factual basis.”

Choi also declared that even if the irregularities alleged by Gbagbo were confirmed, Ouattara still would have won enough votes to carry the election. Within 48 hours of the CEI’s announcement, both candidates swore themselves in as President. Ouattara went a step further, naming a prime minister and a 13-seat cabinet.

Gbagbo’s refusal to accept defeat has met with a remarkable international rebuke. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) strongly condemned any attempt to “usurp the popular will of the people of Côte d’Ivoire and appeals to all stakeholders to accept the results declared by the electoral commission.” ECOWAS Chair and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan called on all parties to “respect and fully implement the verdict of the Ivorian people as declared by the Independent Electoral Commission.” And US President Barack Obama congratulated Ouattara, and said that the world would “hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable for their actions.”

he African Union also responded promptly. Its Peace and Security Council met and expressed the AU’s categorical rejection of any attempt to create a fait accompli that undermines the electoral process. The AU also sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Burkina Faso’s former minister for national security, Djibril Bassolé, who helped broker the Ouagadougou Agreement between then President Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro a decade ago.

But, while the AU’s dispatch of Mbeki demonstrates serious engagement, it should not lead to a negotiated solution or a compromise that thwarts the wishes of a majority of Ivorians. Indeed, in recent years an unfortunate trend has emerged in African politics: losing candidates, unhappy with their election results, unleash violence until the only option for mediators is to grant them a continued role in government. The will of the voters becomes subordinated to the need to end the chaos.

As mediator for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mbeki helped broker the Global Political Agreement between Morgan Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe remained President and Tsvangirai – who won 47% of the vote in the March 2008 elections, compared to Mugabe’s 43% – became Prime Minister. Their forced partnership has been plagued by disagreement and dysfunction.

Similarly, in Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement following elections in January 2008 that were marred by widespread irregularity, violence, and destruction. Odinga has on several occasions stated that the power-sharing deal is at risk of collapse.

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It is not farfetched to imagine that Gbagbo hopes to convert his loss at the polls into a similar pact with Ouattara. In such a scenario, his continued participation in government would be portrayed as a route to peace. This forced hand – presented as a legitimate option – is nothing short of blackmail. It is vital that Africa and the international community take a stand against such strategies – not only to defend the votes of Ivorians, but as a signal to others in the future that legitimate electoral results must be respected.

Africa and the international community have been patient with Côte d’Ivoire, with thousands of hours spent by many people of goodwill on diplomacy and mediation. This effort stemmed from a conviction that peace could be achieved only by accommodating all parties’ concerns.

In that spirit, the continent took considerable pride in the successful execution of the 2010 election and in Ivorian voters’ courageous and disciplined behavior. What Gbagbo and his supporters are doing constitutes a coup d’état. They are holding their fellow citizens hostage, bringing the region into disrepute, and, above all, risking a renewed armed conflict. It is time to end this impunity.

Abdul Tejan-Cole is Africa Regional Director of the Open Society Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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