To Leave or Not to Leave? That is the Gbagbo Question

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 10.01.2011

There have been Popes and anti-Popes in European political disputes. States have sometimes run parallel governments. The spectacle, while absurd, is far from unusual. Power does not merely corrupt - it divides and mocks those who seek it. The crisis in Côte d'Ivoire is no different.

The greatest triumph of democracy, for all its messiness and muddled thinking lies in neutralizing the hate that comes with defeat. Half-decent (for they will never be entirely decent) electoral laws and guidelines; stable institutions; a half generous succession, are some of the measures that might prevent disorder. Africa as a continent has been sorely lacking in that regard.

The crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has all the ingredients of a classic African tragedy. The country has been split since 2002, when a failed putsch against Gbagbo precipitated civil war. The winner of the November election by a margin of 9 percentage points, Alassane Ouattara, is precariously protected by a thin blue line of UN peacekeepers as he keeps office in the Golf Hotel. The defeated party, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to relinquish power. Protests that took place prior to Christmas resulted in numerous deaths on the streets of Abidjan. Hundreds may have been killed and suspected mass graves are being guarded. The events, according to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, have constituted a 'mockery of democracy.'

Early on, Gbagbo's supporters started cultivating a familiar narrative of conspiracy. The UN and the French were plotting to arm pro-Ouattara rebel fighters in the north. The wheels for a potential genocide were being oiled. The claims might seem outrageous, but when one considers Africa to have been the playground of superpowers and former colonial states for decades, such sentiments are hard to dismiss.

What matters in this case is how African voices have been involved in the debate. No longer can this political crisis be seen to be a matter of Western imperialists seeking to impose a sham system while hoping to access a state's natural resources. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has been active in efforts to convince Gbagbo to accept the verdict and leave. Likewise the African Union, on this occasion being represented by the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Threats of military intervention have been voiced. Various countries have offered to accept Gbagbo should he choose to leave, including the United States, which has promised to reconsider the visa ban.

There is little doubt that the international community wants to make an example of Ivory Coast. Democracy is, at best, a fragile creature. With each passing day of this crisis, it weakens. The clarion call for retaliation will sound. Should there be more violence, few will be surprised. The surprise will come in making the transition to a peaceful state of affairs. That will be provide an occasion not merely for relief, but for celebration.

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