Resolving the Crisis in Ivory Coast: The Role of Regional Organizations

The post-election crisis in Ivory Coast has generated a flurry of reactions and stated positions from regional and continental bodies as well as from the wider international community. The crisis has lingered this far primarily because it is unclear what the actual issues are. The debate is even more intense among those seeking to understand the crisis from the constitutional point of view. The United Nations and other bodies seem to have elevated the outcome to be far more important than the process. But a simple fact is that an outcome is as good as the process that generates it. In the Ivorian case, the process was grossly defective.

The country’s constitution is a complex document. Different provisions can be reasonably cited to accord more or less power to the Independent Electoral Commission or the Constitutional Court in matters of elections. Unfortunately, the former is purportedly dominated by loyalists of Alassane Quattara; the latter, by loyalists of Laurent Gbagbo. Unsurprisingly, each declared the winner of last year’s election as their respective favored candidate.

Rather than treating the crisis as a constitutional problem, however, the United Nations and other organizations have declared that the commission’s decision is final and the court’s decision is immaterial. When Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who served as the first African Union envoy to the country, suggested that the issues needed to be investigated, he was quickly replaced by Kenyan Prime Minister Ralia Odinga who is strongly in favor of sustaining the position of the international body.

The member nations of the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) quickly aligned themselves with the U.N. position. In fact, they have even gone further to advance a military option against Gbagbo, in case diplomatic efforts to remove him from office fail. It is possible that they hurriedly stated the position out of need to align with the rest of the international community. It is also likely that they anticipate a coalition government in the future, and probably feel that another power-sharing government would be a terrible outcome, bearing in mind previous experiences in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

To many African leaders and the international community, the idea of power-sharing in a coalitional government is unappealing at best and repulsive at worst. In fact, elevation of Odinga as the envoy has been interpreted by some as a warning to ECOWAS members to prohibit the option. At present, the option of a power-sharing government in Ivory Coast is off the table as all efforts are directed toward ousting Gbagbo by every means possible.

Voices within the continent, including South African President Jacob Zuma and President Museveni of Uganda, are calling for an investigation of the constitutional and electoral issues in the country. But, by and large, they are being drowned out. ECOWAS leaders are taking sides with Quattara’s camp and, through the Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia, are asking for a military operation in Ivory Coast. They see themselves as liberators whom the Ivorians would line the streets to greet after removing Gbagbo.

Ivorians are no strangers to rebellion and ethno-regional conflict. There is presently a high level of unemployment and underemployment among the youth. These conditions portend danger of chaos and insurgency if a major conflict should break out in the country. The world has seen many of these before.

As political leaders gather at the African Union Summit this week, they will need to focus on objectively understanding the facts regarding the Ivorian political and electoral crisis. As they weigh the various options, including possible military intervention, they must take into account possible risk of a massive influx of refugees and a potential humanitarian disaster. Post-election crises are not new to Africa; and countries have managed to work through them in several ways. But foreign military intervention could devastate the country, its people, and its economy. Thus, before calling for a coup and commando operations, regional organizations should explore all other options to end the crisis.