The second round of Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election on 28 November 2010 marked the beginning of a new deep political crisis in the West African country. The two opposing candidates – Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara – both claim victory in the election. The most important continent-wide and regional political organisations of which Côte d’Ivoire is a member, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have failed thus far to propose a resolute African solution for the stand-off between the two candidates. As a result, the AU and ECOWAS demonstrated their incapacity to secure respect for democracy and the rule of law in one of its member states, and Côte d’Ivoire marches on to a potential new civil war.

Following the conclusion of the second round of the presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire on 28 November 2010, the Ivoirian Independent Electoral Commission proclaimed Ouattara the victor with 54.1 per cent of the votes. However, Gbagbo, the opposing candidate and incumbent president of Côte d’Ivoire, refuted the announced result. Against the findings of the international election observers stationed in Côte d’Ivoire during the electoral process, Gbagbo alleged the existence of voting fraud in seven Northern regions of the country. Accordingly, he urged the Ivoirian Constitutional Council to cancel the election results in the stated regions. The Constitutional Council abided by Gbagbo’s statement of claim and declared him the winner of the presidential election with 51.45 per cent of the votes.

The presidential election was to represent the culmination of the United Nations (UN)-sponsored peace process in Côte d’Ivoire, ongoing since the end of the bloody civil war of 2002–04. Instead it instigated a profound new political crisis in the country that resulted from the disputed victory in the presidential election by the two main candidates. The AU and ECOWAS are the most important continental and regional political organisations of which Côte d’Ivoire is a member. Therefore, they should have advanced a swift and effective response to the country’s post-electoral crisis. Nevertheless, and conversely to their aim to play an increasingly commanding political role in the governance of Africa and the West African region, the AU and ECOWAS have to date failed to advance a resolute solution for the mounting imbroglio in Côte d’Ivoire. By doing so, the two organisations fell short of demonstrating a capable posture in a matter that threatens directly the political, economic, social and military stability of both West Africa and the African continent. Before the inoperative capacity of the AU and ECOWAS, Côte d’Ivoire is presently on the brink of civil war.

The popular AU slogan of ‘African solutions for African problems’ remained ingrained in the organisation’s discourse concerning the resolution of Côte d’Ivoire’s post-electoral impasse. Following the early endorsement of Ouattara as the legitimate winner of the presidential poll, the AU created the High Level Panel for the Resolution of the Crisis in the Ivory Coast on 28 January 2011. Its aim was to devise a solution for the complex crisis that afflicted the country. From the outset, the panel reiterated the AU’s adage, and asserted that its objective was to find an ‘African solution for an African problem’. On 10 March 2011, the panel announced its official proposition, which rested on both a pledge to Côte d’Ivoire’s Constitutional Council to swear in Ouattara as the legitimate president of the country, and an appeal to Ouattara to form a government of national unity. Alas, the confrontation between Gbagbo and Ouattara had moved beyond the political sphere in the weeks that followed the elections, which prompted the two candidates to reject boldly the AU’s proposal. Furthermore, the AU’s political proposal was based on the same principles of its advanced recommendations for the polling disputes in Kenya and Zimbabwe in the recent past, which had brought markedly disappointing results.

The AU’s proposed solution was defective because it failed to consider the military, social and economic dimensions of the dispute between the two candidates. Militarily, the country resumed the partition that resulted from the civil war of 2002–04. The north fell again under the control of the former rebel group of the Forces Nouvelles, which declaredly supports Ouattara, and the south remained under the command of the Ivoirian army, which remains manifestly faithful to Gbagbo. Moreover, Gbagbo continued to enjoy the staunch backing of the nationalist armed militia of the Jeunes Patriotes. Both sides continually refuse to demilitarise and have exchanged fire in countless occasions across the country, including in Abidjan, over the most recent weeks.

Côte d’Ivoire’s military division corresponds largely with the current social cleavages that emerged in the country. Gbagbo draws his support from southern ethnic groups who regard themselves as ‘true Ivoirians,’ whereas Ouattara’s popular backing comes mostly from northern ethnic groups that arguably originate from neighbouring countries. Additionally, there are large immigrant communities in Côte d’Ivoire from the entire West African region, who are often targeted by Gbagbo and his supporters.

Economically, the country is in disarray. In partnership with Ouattara, the international community imposed strict sanctions and a commercial blockade to Gbagbo’s regime. As a result, foreign banks discontinued their activities in the country, Côte d’Ivoire was suspended from the Central Bank of West African States, and its main industries (cocoa, coffee, cotton,and oil) suffered substantial setbacks. Accordingly, the solution advanced by the AU proved to be a ‘no-solution’ in practical terms. It neglected a multitude of factors that continue to sever the country in two distinct factions, which make conciliation unattainable under the terms of the AU’s proposition.

Similarly, ECOWAS’ attempts to find a solution for Côte d’Ivoire’s post-electoral crisis has so far produced little to no effect. Hitherto, ECOWAS endorsed Ouattara as the legitimate winner of the presidential poll, suspended Côte d’Ivoire from its activities and threatened to oust Gbagbo from power through the possible use of force. Nevertheless, the organisation’s military warning to Gbagbo was never real but part of its strategy to pressurise him to negotiate the transfer of power in the country.

Gbagbo and his aides were well informed about the genuine capacity and verve of ECOWAS to intervene militarily in Côte d’Ivoire, and openly disregarded the organisation’s statement of intent. As a result, and at its most recent meeting on 23 March 2011, ECOWAS reaffirmed its standing on the subject and called upon the UN to intervene firmly in the resolution of the post-electoral crisis in the West African country. For that purpose, it appealed to the UN Security Council to review the mandate of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI) to allow it ‘to use all necessary means to protect life and property and to facilitate the immediate transfer of power to Mr. Alassane Ouattara.’

Correspondingly, ECOWAS took a firm political stance on the post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, yet it failed to resolve the dispute between Gbagbo and Ouattara. The organisation remains divided regarding the possible use of force in the country, which is most notably rejected by some of Côte d’Ivoire’s immediate neighbours – Ghana and Liberia. They fear a potentially pyrrhic victory for ECOWAS, which could spill over equally into their borders. Nigeria, which has the most capable armed forces in West Africa, expressed similar views on the matter but largely due to security concerns within its own territory. Whilst the use of force to oust Gbagbo from power could be a burdensome option for ECOWAS, the reality is that the organisation has failed to find a determined solution for the post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Moreover, ECOWAS’ recent appeal to the UN Security Council to resolve the dispute between Gbagbo and Ouattara denoted resignation regarding its capacity to play a commanding role in the governance of the West African region.

The response by the AU and ECOWAS to the complex post-electoral crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has thus far been feeble and irresolute. At a time when Africa seems intent on empowering its continental and regional organisations in line with the mantra of ‘African solutions for African problems’, more should be expected from the AU and the ECOWAS to resolve a presidential election dispute in one of its member states. The capacity to use force should not be considered a panacea or a prerequisite to resolve African crises. Nevertheless, the AU and ECOWAS must have at their disposal multiple and capable tools to convince the incumbent president of one of its member states to accept defeat at the poll. The incapacity of the AU and ECOWAS to resolve the Ivoirian post-electoral crisis demonstrated their defective resourcefulness to provide effective ‘African solutions for African problems.’ As a result, Côte d’Ivoire now marches on towards a potentially full-blown military conflict with unforeseeable results for the country, the West African region and the African continent.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.