The crisis in Côte D’Ivoire

As of last weekend, Côte D’Ivoire has two competing presidents: incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, and is challenger Alassane Ouattara, whom the international community considers the winner of the run-off election. The electoral commission, controlled by Ouattara’s party RDR, certified the result of the Nov. 28 runoff and declared Ouattara the winner with 54 percent of the votes. The Ivoirian Constitutional Court, however, is controlled by Gbago’s party FPI and it refused to certify the result. So Gbago was declared the winner by his supporters and sworn in – the same day Ouattara was sworn in at an Abidjan hotel guarded by UN troops.

On the surface the situation looks simple – the ruling party is clinging to power, supported by the army. But it’s not that simple. Yes – Gbago and his party are clinging to power and it does look like they lost a reasonably fair election. But this is so much more complicated than a mere political power struggle because of the ethnic dimension. Simply put, the country is divided North vs. South and Gbago is supported by the South – dominated by Kwa and Krou – and Ouattara is supported by the North – home of the Gour and Mandé people. Currently the North is controlled by the rebel “New Forces” who support Ouattara and the South by the regular military, which supports the Gbago and the Status Quo.

That’s not all. Apparently there has been a long-running dispute regarding Ouattara’s eligibility to run for office at all.

Back in 1992, Gbago and his supporters, who were then in the opposition to the ruling PDCI, accused then-prime-minister Ouattara (under President Boigny) of being disloyal and beholden to foreign influence. After Ouattara’s faction split from the ruling PDCI to form the RDR, Gbago’s FPI allied with the ruling PDCI in the ’95 elections and began to pursue the notion of “Ivoirité” in politics – essentially to undermine Ouattara’s and his fellow Northerner’s patriotic credibility. This campaign resulted in regional and ethnic polarization in Côte D’Ivoire that culminated in the split of the country after a rebellion in 2002. (Source:

The fundamental problem here is tribal/ethnic politics – typical for West Africa, and not uncommon in other parts of the world. Whenever political fault lines line up with tribal or ethnic division, or religious or cultural divisions, it is hard to build trust. Trust, however, is essential to a democracy.  There has to be some basic level of trust that if my side loses an election, the other side will 1) honor the rule of law and 2) cede power should my side win next time.

So these are precisely the reasons why Gbago won’t leave. He assumes that Ouattara and “his people” will take over and wrest all the jobs and the lucrative little junkets from his people. And who’s to say he is wrong about that? And he and his people have no trust that the new regime will treat them fairly, and/or step down should he win a future election.

In addition, in countries like Côte D’Ivoire, deposed politicians have no K-Street to go to. There are probably not many well-paid lobbying jobs to be had. So where does the ancien politicien go? What retirement benefits are  there for all the former heads-of-state? So what incentive do they have not to try with all their might to cling to power?

So I think it would behoove M. Ouattara to reach out to Gbago and try to reassure him (and his allies) that he will be a president of all Ivoirians, and that he will uphold the rule of law, and that there will be “retirement benefits” for Gbago and his allies. Much is at stake in Côte D’Ivoire right now. If this transition is not reasonably peaceful, it might spoil the chances of furthering democracy in that country for a long time. And it will have ripple effects across the continent. Côte D’Ivoire’s leadership must rise to the occasion and find a solution, a path to build trust, like Ghana did. If Ouattara and Gbago can pull it off, it will be a historic achievement.


Ouattara’s website …  Gbago’s website

media reports 12/8: BBCAl Jazeera

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