Dangerous Elections in Divided Societies: the Lesson of Côte D’Ivoire

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Free and fair elections are undisputedly the best way to bring about change of government and consolidate democracy. However, certain pre-conditions must hold if the above objective is to be attained. Otherwise, much damage could result. The Côte d’Ivoire case teaches us lessons that should be a warning ahead of the planned November 28, 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After repeated postponements over a lengthy five year period, Presidential elections finally took place in the West African Republic of Côte d’Ivoire in late 2010. They were held mainly as a result of constant international pressure on the reluctant incumbent –who found multiple excuses to overstay his term by five years, having little inclination to yield power. They finally took place despite the fact that roughly one half of the country was under the control of a rebel movement whose initial aim, 8 years earlier, had been to stage a coup to remove this President and control the whole country. The rebellion failed to achieve its central objective: regime change; but it did not fail entirely. It kept control of the northern half of the country, where the population was mostly favourable to its aims, since northerners generally felt discriminated and unjustly treated by the southern-dominated central government. Even if the latter was able to prevent the rebellion from fully succeeding, it was never able to completely eliminate its continuing hold of the northern region. Over more than seven years, with the aid of foreign parties, innumerable schemes were proposed to reconcile the two forces and to bring the north into the fold. Ultimately an appearance of cooperation and progress towards unity was achieved, without really having resolved the underlying grievances.

The Presidential elections of October 2010 took place in this context, once the incumbent –feeling certain that he would win- finally agreed to their holding. These elections were expected–primarily by members of the international community- to somehow consolidate future peace and unity in Côte d’Ivoire.

From 2004 onwards, the Center for War/Peace studies (CW/PS) ( www.cwps.org ) held the view that elections in Côte d’Ivoire under the then current conditions would not bring peace, but rather the opposite. It postulated that a transitional period would be necessary before competitive elections could be held, during which time the country was to be governed by a team of technocrats strongly supported by international peace keeping forces.

This transitional government would need to address the fundamental problems of the country, namely: discrimination against important ethnic and religious groups, corruption and nepotism, disrespect for the rule of law, and the lack of authority of the central government over the significant rebel-controlled areas. Free and fair elections of a democratic representative government, which could bring peace and stability to the country, could only be held once these problems were successfully dealt with.

Multiple CW/PS representations to UN member states, especially Security Council members, aimed at promoting this view unfortunately went unheeded. There seemed to be a reluctance to fully acknowledge the serious situation facing Côte d’Ivoire, and a reluctance to invest in the expenses needed for the proposed preventive course of action. Instead, continuous futile negotiations to fix an election date took place under international auspices, while inside the country the situation grew worse and worse. After many postponements, a set election date could finally be respected as the incumbent felt secure that he would win. A first round was set for end October 2010 with a second round one month later in case no candidate obtained an absolute majority. To his surprise and chagrin, the incumbent came only marginally ahead in the first round and lost the second one. International observers considered the election acceptably fair and the UN, which had been involved in its implementation, certified the outcome of both rounds. Nonetheless, after the final round the incumbent engaged in a crude fraud so as to be proclaimed as the legitimate winner. This caused a strong and even violent rejection of him by large segments of the Ivoirian people.

Ultimately, the scam did not work. The country became deeply polarized, neighboring African states, worried about the serious regional security threats to themselves posed by continued conflict and instability in Côte d’Ivoire, attempted various diplomatic and financial pressures on the looser to get him to accept the outcome of the vote. The gravity of the unfolding situation eventually spurred major powers to also increase their pressure through economic sanctions and even military means. An alarmed UN Security Council ordered an increase in peacekeeping troops in the country, and the former colonial power, France, increased the number of its troops in the country supporting the UN forces.

During four months Côte d’Ivoire was shaken by inter communal violence, destruction of lives and property, extensive human rights violations, and gradual paralysis of economic life, with all the suffering and costs this implied. Already existing wounds were greatly deepened among the various communities that make up Ivorian society. In early April 2011, until the election loser could finally be dislodged from the presidential palace and arrested by former rebel troops -now loyal to the election winner- and backed by UN peacekeepers, the country experienced conditions of civil war. The crisis came to an end on April 11, 2011. After which the election winner could finally take command and begin leading the country to normality.

The negative legacy of the election process has been enormous for the Côte d’Ivoire. Over 3000 lives were lost according to official figures, with the actual figure being in all probability much, much higher. Thousands and thousands of people have been displaced, many fleeing to neighboring countries where they still remain, physical infrastructure has been destroyed, the economy has shrunk, education has been disrupted, and great hardship has hit a large sector of the population. Gross human rights violations have taken place, as reported by leading Human Rights monitoring organizations, and communal grievances have been exacerbated. For the international community, the cost of diplomatic activities and the active deployment of increased peacekeeping troops have been significant.

On the positive side, it can only be said that the change of regime to a seemingly more competent team that took place, is expected to be beneficial for the future development of the country.

But the cost of this change has been enormous. In retrospect, we can only wonder if the 2004 CW/PS proposal of appointing an internationally-backed transitional technocratic government to reconcile and unite the country, as a pre-condition to holding competitive elections, would not have been a better and less costly course of action.

The Ivorian experience suggests that while democratic elections may be a positive way to bring about regime change and usher in a better new era, they are not by themselves a sufficient way to achieve these worthwhile goals. Unless there is a deep respect for the rule of law backed by strong state institutions and sufficient civic maturity, elections may only bring about further conflict and instability. To ensure successful elections in such cases, the necessary backing to secure acceptance and respect of the outcomes must exist. If the resources and means are not present locally, they must be contributed from abroad. International community election support through the UN must include this aspect. The Ivorian example shows the need for profound new thinking on the matter. A new paradigm is needed.

The issue becomes urgent on the eve of presidential elections scheduled for the Democratic Republic of the Congo in late November 2011, -which also augur at best not to go very smoothly, and at worst to lead to major upheavals in that vast and populated country at the heart of the African continent. Well-known international observers like the Crisis Group and the Carter Institute have already reported that conditions for free and fair elections are not yet met. But the local authorities, including its National Independent Electoral Commission (whose independence is indeed very questionable) have failed to agree. The already two week old election campaign is already bloody, especially in one of the vast and richest provinces in mineral resources, where supporters of the main opposition party are clashing with those who support the incumbent president on ethnic grounds!

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