Ivory Coast's Power Struggle: A Test for African Democracy

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Sunday Alamba / AP

Cape Verde President Pedro Pires, left, walks with Ivory Coast Prime Minister Ake N'gbo after arriving in Abidjan on Dec. 28, 2010

A troika of Presidents from the West African nations of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone met with Ivory Coast's incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday in the hopes of avoiding military intervention to resolve a postelectoral dispute that has left the country with two Presidents. In a situation that analysts say presents a key test for regional groups and leaders, Africa is eschewing the help of traditional international mediators and trying to solve this problem on its own.

Dispatched by the regional group ECOWAS, or the Economic Community of West African States, the three leaders arrived bearing the latest array of diplomatic measures aimed at persuading Gbagbo to step down: political asylum, diplomatic immunity and deals that could ensure him a future in Ivorian politics. Once seen as a savior figure following 11 years of opposing the kleptocratic postindependence President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Gbagbo is now refusing to relinquish power a month after the Constitutional Court handed him a flawed election victory that the international community unanimously doesn't recognize, saying it should go instead to his opponent Alassane Ouattara.

Following a hastily organized Christmas Eve reunion, ECOWAS says it is giving "a final warning" to Gbagbo, "with the firm position that if [he] continues to hold on to power illegally, ECOWAS will have no choice but to remove him forcefully."

Gbagbo's camp is spinning the talk of military intervention as a declaration of war on Ivory Coast backed by Western powers. State-controlled television repeatedly shows Gbagbo supporters at rallies waving placards that protest against Western intervention; "Gbagbo is not a district of France," reads one, referring to Ivory Coast's notoriously fractious history with its former colonial ruler.

But while ECOWAS has taken the lead with the unusually strong position of openly criticizing an incumbent President, the group will be hoping that the threat of force alone is enough to persuade Gbagbo to step down. "Whether at this point all other avenues have been explored to justify military intervention is one thing," says Rolake Akinola, analyst at London-based consultancy Vox Frontier. "Talking of military intervention but not actually using it can in fact increase the security headache."

Gbagbo's popular support may be dwindling as he cracks down on the population in his bid to cling to power. In the commercial capital of Abidjan, armed assailants kick their way into the houses of Ouattara supporters each night. Gunshots can be heard, and the next day neighbors desperately trawl the morgues looking for the bodies of their friends.

But using ECOWAS' armed forces could backfire and provoke a resurgence in support for Gbagbo. Any military interventionists will have to grapple with delicate issues, most importantly securing their objective quickly and with minimal bloodshed — neither of which is guaranteed. Diplomats say a majority of soldiers voted for Ouattara, but the top brass currently remain loyal to Gbagbo.

Ivorian-born Nigerian Chidi (who asked to be identified only by his first name) was among a handful of demonstrators who gathered on Dec. 27 to protest against military intervention. "Why should one African brother kill another?" he asks, standing in front of the Nigerian embassy in Abidjan. One of a million Ivorian-born Nigerians in Ivory Coast, Chidi says he fears reprisals against the Nigerian community in the event of a military solution — Africa's largest country has provided the majority of soldiers in most military missions by ECOWAS.

It's unclear which state would take the lead in this case; Nigeria is facing its own security crises, from the struggle to quell radical Islamic sects to an upcoming election in April. Bordering Liberia and Ghana are already dealing with an influx of some 14,000 refugees from Ivory Coast, says the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. And troops from Sahelian neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso could further complicate matters, given that Ivory Coast's 2002 civil war was supported by northern citizens — many with Burkinabe and Malian origins — who felt marginalized by southern-led governments.

The unity of the 16 countries behind the facade of ECOWAS will be tested over the coming weeks — across the continent leaders are already suggesting contrasting approaches. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has called for a "consensual" solution, while Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga says force is the most effective method.

But as the U.N. reports at least 173 dead, more than 200 wounded and almost 500 detained so far, whether Gbagbo chooses to step down or is successfully removed by force, the troublesome results of Ivory Coast's presidential election point to deeper issues across the continent. "It's not that democracy doesn't work in Africa," says South African Ambassador Zodwa Lallie. "It's the best thing we have. But we can't overlay it without considering the structures that already exist. Africans must know that your voice is your own, your vote is your own — not your tribe's, your chief's or anyone else's."