Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dear Uncle Laurent...

I still remember listening to the BBC’s Focus on Africa program on Christmas Eve 1999 and hearing the announcement that the military had seized power in Ivory Coast, appointing a retired General (Robert Guei) as its leader. The coup had apparently come as the culmination of a dispute between the then president Henri Konan Bedie and the military. It came as somewhat of a surprise that one of West Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations had fallen to the curse of the coup. In the 90’s, coups in West Africa were sadly not unusual; Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and my own dear Sierra Leone had all been through one (in our case three).

General Guei, as is common among coup leaders, tried to cling on to power after elections were held the following year. He was however forced out of office by popular protests that swept a certain Laurent Gbagbo to power. A coup attempt against Gbagbo’s rule in 2002 led to the start of the Ivorian Civil war as forces loyal to the president were able to prevent the rebels from capturing the capital. This led to the country being split in two as rebels controlled the northern half and the elected government southern portion of the country, which included the capital. A peace agreement called for democratic elections that were delayed for years by Gbagbo but were eventually held late last year.

The polls went to a second round and opposition leader Alhassane Ouattara was declared winner by the independent electoral commission, a decision that was overturned by the Constitutional council (led by an ally of Gbagbo). These conflicting verdicts have led to a dangerous stalemate in the country as both men have formed rival cabinets and dug in. The reaction of the international community has ranged from commendable to counterproductive.

ECOWAS were quick to condemn Gbagbo and recognize Ouattara as the legitimate winner but were too hasty in threatening military intervention to install Ouattara. Their rush to appear firm and assertive could potentially open up the door for some serious embarrassment. It was an amateurish diplomatic move and they risk being perceived as toothless, if they do not follow through. Following through will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of lives as Ivory Coast has a fairly robust military.

While I feel they were right in condemning Gbagbo and threatening military intervention, they should not have done so in public. We all know the only thing bigger than African leaders’ mansions is their egos. Threatening Gbagbo in public doesn’t offer a dignified exit and can play right into his strategy of whipping up nationalistic fervour. He can now sell himself as the “protector” of Ivorian dignity and self-esteem. Ivory Coast is a regional giant in its own right and its people wouldn’t be too keen on their country being invaded by foreigners.

The UN and western governments were also quick to recognize Ouattara but this support may yet backfire for Ouattara. Whilst I do believe he was the legitimate winner, the overt support from outside groups just makes it easier for him to be branded an agent of foreign powers. For years, Ouattara was accused of being from Burkina Faso and hence not “Ivorian” enough to rule the country. His political opponents have long played on ethnic differences to create an intense hatred towards so-called foreigners.

In staying, and ignoring the will of the Ivorian people Gbagbo has reversed the recent trend of democratization that was spreading in the region. His greed and selfishness endangers the whole region as instability spreads easily. In a bid to crush anti-government sentiment in the aftermath of the elections he’s reported to have hired former fighters from Liberia’s Civil war. This threatens Liberia’s fragile peace as funding these fighters will re-activate elements in Liberia that have remained dormant since the end of the war. This would be a serious problem for Sierra Leone and Guinea that share borders with Liberia.

While some may be tempted, in the interests of stability, to tolerate Gbagbo and form a Kenyan-style unity government I feel it is of utmost importance that he is removed. If he were to remain, it would be sending a message to other presidents in the region that it’s alright to overstay their welcome. We need to set a new tone with our leaders… you lose elections, you get out.

Gbagbo is quite simply a disgrace. He has accumulated vast amounts of personal wealth courtesy of the country’s coffers and after a decade in power, still wants to cling on. He’s stirred up ethnic rivalries, xenophobia and turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by his youth groups just to ensure that he remains in office. He came to power on the back of popular protests and has sought to harness the power of young, energetic and unemployed young men to silence dissent. He has shown the classic signs of a dictator and as a continent we need to say a collective “no!” to leaders likes these. The election was a missed opportunity to start the healing process after the tumultuous decade the country had undergone. The unrest has pushed back the reconciliation process by a few years and, sadly it could yet get worse.

It pains me personally to hear Western governments condemning yet another African leader for staying too long in power. It pains me because they are right and it proves yet again our nations are just not mature enough to sort out their problems peacefully. We need to stop looking to the West for solutions and we need to take responsibility for our weaknesses. Africa is lacking visionary leaders, that's why I believe it’s up to our generation to weed out the ego-centric, selfish and the incompetent and allow true statesmen to flourish.

Our generation needs to accept our leadership shortcomings and not allow politicians to hide their incompetence and corruption behind anti-colonial rhetoric. That is the only hope we have to get away from the current state of weak governments and institutions that only serve the elite. A popular Tunisian-style uprising is needed in Ivory Coast but will only be a possible when the young realise that men like Gbagbo are a curse they must rid themselves of. This is only a matter of time. The likes of Gbagbo are a threat to the prosperity and safety of our generation and the generations to come.

Tunisia has shown us that people power is a timeless concept that cannot be matched, even by brute force. It’s time the young of Ivory Coast take to the streets and enforce the change that they know their country desperately needs.

If I could write a letter to Gbagbo it would start something like this;

“Dear uncle Laurent, the young are coming to get you…”

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