It all reeked of déjà vu.
After 10 years in power, five spent successfully postponing one election after the next, Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo was pronounced the loser of his November 28th runoff against challenger Alassane Ouattara by Côte d’Ivoire’s Independent Electoral Commission.
And then, in the blink of an eye, he was the winner.
Later that same day, the pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council set aside some half-million votes from Ouattara bastions in the north. The next day, December 4, Gbagbo swore himself in as president.
The outcome could hardly be described as shocking. Gbagbo, who presided over Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer, during its civil war from 2002 to 2007, has little taste for democracy. His campaign slogan should have been a hint: “Either we win. Or we win.”
Nor was it a shock—after watching Mwai Kibaki in Kenya and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe finagle their ways into power-sharing arrangements after losing elections—to see another African strongman successfully defy the will of the people.
What did come as a surprise was the firmness of the international community’s response. The bloc of West African states known as ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) came out early against Gbagbo, with the United Nations, European Union, African Union, United States and France following suit. Within days of the electoral commission’s announcement, all had called on Gbagbo to step aside and rejected any suggestion of power-sharing. A steady stream of sanctions ensued. The US and EU imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo, the African Union suspended Côte d’Ivoire’s membership, the World Bank cut off loans to the country and international banks froze Gbagbo’s accounts.
Although an ECOWAS delegation met with Gbagbo twice in a week in order to coax the defiant leader into stepping down, the 15-nation organization has been wielding the biggest stick of all: it is threatening to oust Gbagbo by force if negotiations fail. Member nation defense chiefs convened in Nigeria last week to hammer out a potential intervention plan, and a follow-up meeting is scheduled for January 17. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, indicated his country would support ECOWAS military action if no peaceful resolution could be reached. Nothing similar has yet come from the State Department, though the calls for restraint that usually accompany talk of impending conflict are conspicuously absent.
But restraint—of both words and deeds—is precisely what the US should be advocating at the moment…
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