Cote d’Ivoire: a model electoral mess

Tuesday, 14 December 2010
Richard Dowden


Here we go again.
After Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2008 and Mwai Kibaki in Kenya in the same year, now Laurent Gbagbo inCote d’Ivoire is trying to defy an election result. It’s becoming a pattern: sitting president reluctantly holds an election. Deludes himself into thinking he will win. No one would dare tell him he might lose. He loses. There must be some mistake. Someone must have cheated. The truth is that the ruling party has cheated, but clearly not enough. Recounts are held – sometimes for days. Who will dare bring the president the bad news? The electoral commission is cowed.  

In Zimbabwe President Violence Mugabe unleashed the green bombers on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. There is going to be no Orange revolution there. In Kenya the opposition deliberately chose Orange as the colour and the name of its party. And they had their thugs ready to go too. But Kibaki’s Mungiki thugs were better armed and appeared to have immunity. 

In each case violence followed by intense international negotiation led to a compromise. The Presidents who lost the election stayed on in office with a monopoly of violence but had to concede places in government for the opposition. Violence paid.  

In the case of Cote d’Ivoire this outcome will be difficult because the Electoral Commission had already declared Gbagbo’s opponent, Alassane Ouattara, the winner by a margin of eight points. Ecowas and the African Union have endorsed his victory and are unlikely to change their minds.

In Zimbabwe the competition for power was not simply ethnic. Both Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai are from the same group, the Shona. Mugabe and Zanu-PF believed they own Zimbabwe because they won it through war. They will not allow regime change through the ballot box. In Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire it is ethnic. “We” cannot lose power. “They” shall not rule. In Cote D’Ivoire it is also religious. Most of Ouattara’s northern supporters are Muslim. Gbagbo and his Southern supporters, Christian.

In Zimbabwe a power-sharing agreement was signed but Mugabe has kept power, control of the security forces and immunity from the law. In Kenya the competing politicians realised the trough was big enough for all of them and so they made peace and have enjoyed “eating” ever since. The last thing they want now is an election and for the people to have a say. 

The ruling southern elite in Cote d’Ivoire, Catholic, well-educated, sophisticatedly French and as bigoted and racist anyone in France’s National Front, have chosen war again. That is the most likely outcome unless President Thabo Mbeki can make a compromise. But the resignation of Guillaume Soro, the northern leader who has served as Gbagbo’s cabinet as Prime Minister, makes that scenario unlikely. 

Mbeki – whose reputation as a peacemaker was not helped by his Zimbabwe fudge and the lack of follow up to enforce what was agreed – cannot leave Gbagbo in power. He or his party may be given seats in a Ouattara cabinet but there can be no compromise over who won this election and who should have the top job. 

Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa’s transition all point to one simple truth: first past the post, winner-takes-all multi party democracy is not appropriate for Africa’s nation states. These new states overlay old and very diverse societies which, after 50 years of independence, still attract more loyalty than the states. But can someone please devise a constitution which takes account of this and creates a system that is democratic, inclusive and representative, and which can hold the government to account. At the same time it should not leave the losing candidate in an election at best redundant and irrelevant, at worst an enemy of the state.   


Last week I spoke at a huge investment conference in Cairo. It was a very upbeat but realistic gathering. I would have loved to know how much the participants’ combined portfolio came to. All of it now seeking investment opportunities in Africa. As the conference began Barclays in London announced that Africa will be“the centre of its growth strategy”, and a story in the FT quoted a banker as saying: “Africa is the flavour of the day. People who have a vision of it say it’s like China 20 years ago and if you don’t get in now, you’ll regret it.”

Bob Geldof gave the closing speech. He began by berating someone - expletives not deleted - for texting on his mobile while He was speaking. I’ll say this for the grumpy old rocker, he has lost none of his passion and glowering fury but he has updated his song. He still says “just give us the effing money”. Then it was to feed the starving. Now it’s for investment in Africa. 

Cairo retains its extraordinary, chaotic character, a dynamic mixture of Islam and Western culture. Despite its politically repressive government, socially it feels very open with women walking and working freely, very self-assured. You feel safe on the streets – at least in the area I was in, and people are open and friendly. But I took three taxis and each one had the radio tuned to a station chanting the Koran. Is this new? Or are Cairene taxi drivers all members of the Muslim Brotherhood?