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The causes of the post-election crisis in Côte d'Ivoire

Gilles Olakounlé Yabi
West Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group
Gilles Olakounlé Yabi

Gilles Olakounlé Yabi

On 27 November 2010, there was nothing to suggest Côte d'Ivoire was drifting towards a bloody conflict lasting five months, which will be recorded in the annals as "the post-election crisis." It was the eve of the second round of presidential elections and in Abidjan, the largest Ivorian city and the seat of political power, the atmosphere was surreal; so much so that it was hard to believe that the elections announced five years previously were finally taking place. The week had seen the final rallies in the campaign, while there had been an unprecedented debate, broadcast on radio and television, between the two candidates who had obtained enough votes from the first round of voting (held on on 31 October 2010): the acting president, Laurent Gbagbo, and the former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara. The good-natured debate had to some extent put Ivorians' minds at rest as they made an effort to believe that the presidential elections, which had been organized after eight years of political-military crisis, would lead to peace. Nonetheless, they all knew that the campaign had become more aggressive between the two rounds of voting, and that militia groups had reappeared in various parts of the country, which suggested that the post-electoral scenarios would not be peaceful.

Why did everything go wrong? Why did the long process of armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire lead to a post-election crisis? (The epilogue to the story took place on 11 April 2011 with the arrest, broadcast on the mass media, of the former President Gbagbo, who is currently waiting trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.) First, because the presidential elections were held in a country where the occupant of the presidential palace has unlimited access to the State's material and coercive resources. This meant that there was a great deal more at stake than usual: for those who had been accustomed to holding power for years - ten years in the case of President Gbagbo - holding onto it was essential. More than his individual interests were at stake – his election was the key to the physical and material welfare in the following years of his family, clan and political, civil and military supporters. The temptation to hold on to presidential power, whatever the outcome of the vote (which is what is supposed to be decisive in a democratic system), became stronger as his prospects for re-election became more uncertain.

Laurent Gbagbo had come to power in October 2000 after an election that had excluded all the influential political players, except for the coup leader General Robert Guéi. Gbagbo was one of three main leaders at that time, but his victory in 2000 was primarily the result of a remarkable ability to take advantage of an exceptional convergence of political circumstances. In 2010, with the usual advantages of an incumbent candidate, it was possible for him to win, but in objective terms he had little more chance of success than his two main opponents, Alassane Ouattara and former President Henri Konan Bédié. Laurent Gbagbo obtained 38% of the votes in the first round on October 31, against Ouattara (32%) and Bédié (25%). However, faced with the political alliance that his two opponents created before the election, the outgoing president was undoubtedly hopeful of winning the second round, but was no longer the favourite. For some of those who for years had linhked their destiny to Gbagbo continuing as president, it had become imperative to win at any cost, even if their candidate was defeated at the polls.

Part of the problem in avoiding a violent post-election crisis lay in the fact that the presidential elections were by no means usual. The election campaign was the last stage in a peace process in a country which had been divided in two since September 2002, after the armed rebellion by the Forces Nouvelles led by Guillaume Soro, who became prime minister in 2007 thanks to a peace agreement with Laurent Gbagbo. This agreement acknowledged the existence of two armed forces that had previously been in conflict, but had no alternative other than reunification; the two armies participated with the United Nations peace mission in the security process surrounding the presidential election. In this context, the electoral coup d'etat carried out by the president after his defeat in the second round was in all probability triggered by an armed conflict between the "loyalist" forces and the former rebel forces. This scenario is even more likely if we consider that the candidate who won at the polls, Alassane Ouattara, was known for his links to the Forces Nouvelles since 2002.

When he was proclaimed president by a constitutional council that had annulled 600,000 votes cast in the north of the country - the home region of most of the ex-rebels and the candidate Ouattara - Gbagbo's camp knew that they were returning the country to an armed conflict. Could the postponement of the presidential elections of 2010 have prevented a post-election conflict? We will never know, although if we consider the psychology of those involved and the passionate nature of Ivorian political rivalries, the answer is probably negative. However, better anticipation of the types and locations of the worst violence would have made it possible to limit the human cost of the conflict.