Ivory Coast Deserves Deeper Democracy

The people of Ivory Coast are paying the ultimate price for democracy. At least 400 have died since the December 2010 elections, nearly one million are internally displaced and over 90,000 have fled to Liberia. Abidjan, a city of over 4 million people, is quickly becoming a battlefield and a ghost town with a quarter of its population uprooted. Meanwhile the supporters of both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara are recruiting more soldiers and intensifying preparations for the war ahead. Is this the right way to achieve democracy? How did Ivory Coast get to this point?

Ivory Coast had a history of political stability and economic success that lasted from 1960, when it achieved political independence from France, until 1993, when its president of 33 years, Felix Houphouet Boigny, died. President Boigny’s dictatorship followed French colonial rule that lasted from 1893 to 1960. So it was not until 1990 that the people of Ivory Coast held their first multiparty election. (Gbagbo challenged Boigny for the presidency and was easily defeated.)

The next election was in 1995 and was rigged so that Ouattara, an ex-prime minister of the country, could not participate in it (on the grounds that his father was from the neighboring country of Burkina Faso). As a result, Henri Bedie, who took over the presidency when Boigny died in 1993, ran virtually unopposed and not surprisingly won with 96 percent of the vote. Subsequently in 1999, he was overthrown in a coup d’etat by General Robert Guei, who then organized elections in 2000 and attempted to rig them himself. He failed and was forced to flee when his opponent’s supporters—those of Gbagbo—violently protested claiming that their leader was the true winner.

In 2002, the country broke out into civil war and when the time came for Gbagbo to hold another election and run again in 2005, the war provided a convenient basis for him to repeatedly postpone the political contest. Finally in November 2010, the election took place and its outcome gave the country two presidents, Ouattara and Gbagbo, both of whom claim victory.

In short, Ivory Coast has never experienced what could be called true democracy. When other African countries were making attempts at achieving this model, the Ivory Coast was under the thumb of a dictator. Congo under Mobutu and Somalia under Siade Barre suffered similar setbacks under dictators, but without the economic development that the Ivory Coast achieved. In each case, once the dictatorship ended the country promptly fell apart. Each had essentially no experience with the democratic processes and insufficient institutions to help them guide their way.

Upon the dissolution of the Boigny dictatorship, attempts were made to adopt democracy. But this essentially forced the country to choose between rule by either its south or the north. For the south, the rule by the north was tantamount to surrendering power to foreign immigrants mainly from Burkina Faso in the north. For the north, southern rule meant continued discrimination and marginalization. There was no one leader who had sufficient political skill and credibility to engineer a pragmatic coalition so that all parties in the country could peacefully participate in government.

In 1965, Sir Arthur Lewis, a Nobel laureate from the Caribbean, wrote in his classic work, Politics in West Africa, that the classical model of western, “winner-takes-all” democracy would not work in Africa. He argued that the ethnic divide or “cleavage” in most African countries would not yield peaceful electional outcomes. This is precisely what is happening in Ivory Coast. It is also what happened in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Congo (the DRC) and in Uganda during the 1960s and 1970s. Compromises in Kenya and Zimbabwe have been criticized for not working well; however, they are better than the alternative, which is the war now happening in the Ivory Coast. Surely those affected in the country, those who have seen loved ones die or flee from their homes, would prefer a new political arrangement between the north and south over the chaos and tragedy of war.

The colonial borders drawn in the Berlin Congress in 1884 cannot be unmade (the example of Southern Sudan notwithstanding). Consequently, it is incumbent on each country to devise a formula of democracy that creates peace and justice. A democratic model that leads to war is not a good model. It springs from an assumption that has been proved wrong time and again: that participants will accept the outcome of an electoral process, whatever that outcome may be. Moreover, it privileges the voting process over all else. Yet, it is senseless to conduct elections in an active battlefield—which the Ivory Coast has basically been since 2002. The solution to the country’s problems is not to force one side to conquer the other through the ballot box. The solution is to share governance and access to the country’s resources. Sir Arthur Lewis noted that most European nations were ruled by coalition governments from the end of the World War II to the time of his writing in 1963. It may be time to revisit this model if Africa is to enjoy a more peaceful democracy.

All African nations should ensure that political parties are broad based and enjoy credible participation of all tribes and religions. Parties that are based in one part of the country or only appeal to one faith or one tribe are direct and unacceptable threats to peace and stability. Additionally, national constitutions should reflect the true ethnic and religious forces in each country, instead of simply photocopying constitutions from the West.

What is going on in Ivory Coast is unacceptable. The type of democracy that it and Africa as a continent needs is the type that brings peace, unity and justice rather than war—a democratic model that unifies rather than kills.