Last Chance in Côte d'Ivoire

Co-authored by Thomas Bassett

While international attention has been focused on North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks, the electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has worsened and is entering a new and dangerous phase. Repeated efforts at international mediation have failed, and despite a financial squeeze on the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, he shows no signs of relinquishing his illegitimate claim on power. There is a real risk that civil war will reignite or that military officers will stage a coup. Just this past week security forces loyal to Gbagbo opened fired on peaceful women protesters in the commercial capital Abidjan, and the UN reports 200,000 civilians fled neighborhoods largely supportive of Alassane Ouattara.

Renewed international focus on Côte d'Ivoire is needed to short circuit a potentially rapid escalation of violence. In what could be the last chance for peaceful mediation, the African Union's Peace and Security Council has invited Ouattara, Gbagbo, and Paul Yao N`Dré, President of the country's highest court, to appear before the council this week in Addis Ababa. The stakes are major not only for Ivoirians and the West Africa subregion, but also for African democracy more generally.

The crisis began three months ago when then incumbent President Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing in a second round of elections to his long-time rival Ouattara. A UN peace-building mission, in the country since 2003, certified the electoral result. In a remarkable display of regional and international unity, the African Union, the ECOWAS, the United States, and France all have joined the UN in speaking with one voice: Gbagbo lost the elections, and he should step down. But under N'dré's leadership, the high court rigged the vote and declared Gbagbo the winner. Since then, the world's largest cocoa producer has been in a slow burn; Ouattara supporters seethe in frustration, and Gbagbo loyalists in the army and in youth militias employ violence to prevent an Egypt-style uprising.

As the crisis deepens, the risk is great that Ivoirians will choose a logic of violence to resolve matters and that the international consensus will fragment. Both would be a mistake. Violence in the form of war or coup will not solve the deep underlying issues that fuel the crisis. International unity is needed now more than ever.

The best solution is to remain firm in pressuring Gbagbo. The international community must also use its leverage to encourage Ouattara to lead Côte d'Ivoire out of the crisis. To date, West Africa and international financial institutions have denied Gbagbo access to critical cash flows; the EU and US have imposed sanctions on his inner circle; and the International Criminal Court is looking into major crimes committed by his forces. These remain vital tools, especially as the violence escalates.

What is also needed is leadership from Ouattara. He must demonstrate that the era of "winner-takes-all" elections is over, and he must be the face of national reconciliation. During his presidential campaign, Ouattara promised to rewrite the constitution to rein in executive powers. In the short term, he needs to allay the fears of Gbagbo supporters and actively build as big a tent as possible within the electorate, the political class, and the military. In the aftermath of the elections, Ouattara chose Guillaume Soro as Prime Minister. A northerner like Ouattara, Soro was the political face of the rebellion that fought Gbagbo's forces. By choosing Soro, Ouattara sent a winner-takes-all signal to southerners, which was precisely the wrong message to send at a time when national healing was needed.

The crisis in Côte d'Ivoire is multi-layered. At one level, it is a power game, and Gbagbo is doing all he can to maintain his power. At another level, there are deep and real tensions around land rights and citizenship in Côte d'Ivoire. To win the trust of the 46% of the electorate that voted for Gbagbo, Ouattara must build a government of national unity (excluding Gbagbo) that is poised to address the concerns of all citizens. Ouattara can change Ivorian politics and make representation and accountability the new rules of the game. Most Ivoirians want to avoid violence and they voted to do so. They want to rebuild the economy and restart their lives. To keep their dream alive as the end game approaches, international actors must keep up the pressure and Ouattara must do all he can to lead the country out of the crisis. This week's African Union meetings are vital to that process.

Thomas Bassett is Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Scott Straus is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.