Ivory Coast seems to be stepping back from the brink of a full-scale civil war after yesterday’s capture of Laurent Gbagbo, the recalcitrant leader who refused to give up power after losing the presidential election last November. The country’s internationally recognized winner of that election, President Alassane Ouattara, a trained economist and former IMF official, announced the “dawn of a new era of hope” for the country. For the sake of the Ivorian people, let’s hope he’s right. Abidjan, the country’s cultural and economic center, is in shambles, with stores destroyed from looting, dead bodies in the streets, and widespread power failures. Months of escalating violence have resulted in more than a million displaced people and thousands of casualties. There are reports of massacres by both sides that could drive the death toll much higher. The economy too has been stalled during this period of political uncertainty. Millions of dollars worth of cocoa, Ivory Coast’s main cash crop, is languishing in warehouses at the docks, waiting for export.
Once known as the “jewel of French Africa,” Ivory Coast today is a testament to the ills of poor governance. At the time of independence in 1960, its GNP per capita was roughly on a par with that of South Korea. Today, it is approximately one-twentieth of South Korea’s. Decades of social turmoil and political instability, and more recently civil war, have taken their toll.
As I noted in an earlier article on Ivory Coast, when entrenched leaders like Gbagbo refuse to go, even in the face of an election telling them that their time in power is up, the options for the international community are limited: either support a costly military intervention or keep sheepishly quiet. In the case of Ivory Coast, the international community tried various strategies to get Gbagbo to leave: at first, he was offered inducements to retire gracefully to a face-saving post outside the country; then, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations imposed financial sanctions to turn up the heat, followed by a steady progression of African leaders shuttling to Abidjan begging Gbagbo to go peacefully. He only dug in his heels. The point of no return came when his troops brutally massacred women lining the streets in non-violent protest, carrying branches to symbolize peace. While the sanctions and the shuttle diplomacy had the positive effect of galvanizing internal opposition, ultimately force was required. Alassane Ouattara led a militia of northern troops which, with French and UN helicopter support, gained control of key towns and eventually surrounded Gbagbo in his residential bunker in Abidjan.
Ivory Coast’s crisis is in many ways a litmus test for emerging democracies across Africa, and indeed around the world. Gbagbo’s remaining defiantly in power would have further emboldened autocrats and discouraged democracy activists. We don’t fully understand the feedback loops between democracy’s rise and fall in various countries, although we know that democracy activists in the Middle East have been inspired by the people power of their regional neighbors. It’s safe to surmise that the opposite is also true – autocrats like Gbagbo are influenced by the staying power of dictators like Qaddafi. Yesterday’s capture scored one for the good guys. Unfortunately for Ivory Coast, though, getting rid of Gbagbo might be the easiest step on the arduous path of political and economic reform that the country desperately needs, and that Ivorians deserve.