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Côte d’Ivoire: Let’s talk it about it

By Monica Mark in Abidjan
Posted on Saturday, 11 December 2010 11:38

Since Ivorian political institutions returned conflicting results for the 28 November run-off elections, the country has been in a state of suspended animation after both Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo claimed victory. Faced with universal condemnation from international institutions, Gbagbo says he is now ready to sit down for talks.

The Ivorian political scene has been frozen in a stalemate ever since the electoral commission and the constitutional council reported different results from the 28 November run-off elections. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to recognise his defeat, but after condemnation from across Africa and the world, a negotiated settlement appears more likely as the year comes to an end.

After being criticised by diplomats representing the UN, US, France, the European Union and the African Union, Gbagbo adopted a more conciliatory tone on 10 December, after more than a week of refusing to step down from power because of poll results which showed that opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won the election with 54.1% of the vote.

The 10 December edition of state-run newspaper Fraternité Matin reported that Gbagbo was finally adopting a conciliatory position: “We hear people say there will be war, that there will be an explosion. There will not be a war here. Things will end up with us sitting down. Let’s sit down and talk. If there is a problem, we will sit down and talk.” Ouattara’s camp had already said that it would agree to talks, but only on the condition that Gbagbo agrees to hand over power.

May you live in interesting times

It had been a busy couple of weeks. The noise was loud enough that one had to shout to be heard, the storm after the quiet. Gathered inside Abidjan’s 1970s-chic Golf Hotel lobby, on the curved driveway outside and spilling onto the UN tank-lined streets, hundreds had come to celebrate the announcement by the Commission Electorale Indépendente (CEI).

Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was now president-elect, CEI chief Yousouff Bakayoko said on 2 December. Ivorians had been waiting anxiously to know the result of the 28 November run-off elections, the first in a decade. Streets that had been deserted since a pre-election curfew kicked in were filled with jubilant supporters – and angry backers of the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo. Speaking to journalists from the heavily-guarded hotel, Bakayoko said Ouattara had taken 54.1% of the vote.

However, in mid-December, Ivorians still do not know who their president will be. The military closed the country’s borders, foreign news stations were shut down and state-owned Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne played pro-Gbagbo clips on a loop.

A battle of institutional proportions

The Conseil Constitutionnel, charged with ratifying the results, said the electoral process was in its, rather than the CEI’s, hands. The body said the electoral commission failed to meet the legal 72-hour time limit to announce the results. Minutes before Outtara was declared the winner, Conseil Constitutionnelpresident Paul Yao N’Dre said that a definitive winner – or a rerun – would be announced within seven days.

N’Dre, a former university colleague of Gbagbo, reiterated the Conseil‘s stance after the news of Ouattara’s victory broke on foreign media stations. On 3 December, the Conseil announced that the vote in pro-Ouattara zones in the north would be cancelled and the Gbagbo had won with 51% of the vote. The results from the northern regions were not all that different from those scored by Ouattara in the first round of voting on 31 October, and Gbagbo had not filed a complaint then.

Gbagbo’s then prime minister, Guillaume Soro, resigned and called on UN mission chief, South Korean Young-jin Choi, to validate the provisional results. A 2007 peace deal brokered between rebels and the government stipulates that the UN must sign off on the final results. After several reviews of the vote count, the UN has continued to back the CEI’s findings.

As the waiting game began anew, Ouattara’s camp warned it would not accept any ruling that overturned the provisional announcement. Soro resigned as prime minister in Gbagbo’s government and Outtara then named him his prime minister and minister of defence. Both Gbabgo and Ouattara have since set up rival administrations.

International actors have ratcheted up the pressure. The US was the first country to recognise Ouattara as the victor, but was soon followed by others. In Abidjan, French and US diplomats are already having working level talks with Ouattara’s cabinet. On other hand, Gbagbo’s foreign minister is in Ouagadougou to talk with the previous mediator of the Ivorian crisis, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré.

Who do you recognise?

International institutions, from the AU to the UN, have condemned Gbagbo for refusing to step down. On 8 December, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recognised Ouattara as the winner and expelled Côte d’Ivoire. On 9 December, the African Union suspended Côte d’Ivoire, saying that the suspension would last as long as Gbagbo refuses to cede power.

This makes the situation unlike recent post-election crises in Kenya or Zimbabwe, where the international community and the heads of state of Africa were unable to arrive at a common position on electoral results and what they meant. Countries have already threatened Gbagbo and his family with economic sanctions should the situation continue for much longer. ECOWAS, represented by Nigeria, said that a Zimbabwe-style government of national unity is not a suitable solution for this case.

Financial links are also important to both men’s claims to represent the country. Ouattara has been in contact with the West African central bank, the Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO), so that his government can be the only one to touch the country’s public funds. As of 10 December the BCEAO had not issued a formal reply to Ouattara’s request. Cocoa speculators are already talking about the likely impact of the electoral crisis on agricultural performance. Some businessmen have said that they will not pay taxes until the leadership crisis is resolved, and cocoa deliveries have slowed.

Paying the costs

Pressure for a resolution will only mount as salaries for public sector workers and the military must be paid. Ouattara has since called on civil servants not to work for Gbagbo’s government, saying that it is illegal. In addition, there is friction between Gbagbo and his army chief of staff, Philippe Mangou. Ouattara has yet to name his army chief of staff, which is when things could flare up again. Mass popular protest have been limited because the army has demonstrated that it intends to be ruthless and the ongoing curfew has dampened opposition momentum. Looking at other West African examples, some analysts ask how long the military is likely to remain silent and obedient in the face of a political uncertainty.

Ouattara has called for the creation of a government of national unity, but his camp says Gbagbo must recognise Ouattara as president before talks can begin. While officials close to the incumbent say he has expressed disdain for marriages of convenience, Gbagbo may see this as a viable alternative to complete isolation, even if only temporarily. For now, international mediators are focused on what they need to do to get Gbagbo to agree to step down and the rest will flow from there.

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