23 December 2010

Ivory Coast - a democratic riddle

Everyone it seems, agrees that Laurent Gbagbo should step down as president of Ivory Coast. The UN, the African Union, the United States and the EU are all in agreement that his opponent in the recent election, Alassane Ouattara, should now assume the presidency. Considering that Ouattara won by 54 per cent to 46 per cent, they have a point. Gbagbo, unfortunately, demurs. And considering he controls the Constitutional Court (which insists, contrary to international observers, that Gbagbo won the election), the state television channel and the army, he has to be taken seriously.

If this were simply a matter of another African strongman refusing to give up power, and that may be partly the case, it would be a straightforward issue. But there is more to it than that. Ivory Coast is part of a swath of Africa from west to east that contains countries with Muslim populations in the north and Christian populations in the south. And therein lies the problem. Gbagbo is a Christian southerner and Ouattara is a Muslim northerner.

If we think strictly in numbers, then Gbagbo must go. But democracy is about more than numbers. Democracy is about representation. And, since Ivorians voted strongly along ethnic and religious lines, we can assume the southerners don't believe their interests can be represented by a northerner. If that is the case, does Gbagbo have a point? Is the result democratic if the south is to have imposed on it a president inimical to its interests?

We have a certain experience with this in Canada. The perception that certain prime ministers favoured Quebec caused rumblings of secession here in Alberta. And rumblings of secession are heard constantly in Quebec rising in part from distrust of les maudits anglais.

Fortunately, our trust in each other has overcome our suspicions, as it must if democracy is to work in a pluralistic society. Perhaps this trust has simply not developed in Ivory Coast, in which case democracy simply by numbers may be unworkable. This suggests two possibilities: Ivory coast can follow the path taken by Sudan, i.e. hold a referendum on splitting the country in two, or it can develop some kind of power-sharing agreement to keep both north and south reasonably content.

The latter has been the Canadian approach to Quebec's yearning for independence. We established structures that allowed Quebec sufficient autonomy to feel comfortable within the union. Of course, Quebec has also tried the referendum on secession approach, but there was enough trust in the union—barely—to prevent a breakup. Accommodating Quebec has caused grumbling in the rest of the country about a tyranny of the minority; nonetheless, the system has worked for over 140 years, longer than most countries have existed. Perhaps there are some lessons here for Ivory Coast.

There is of course a third approach—a return to civil war until one side is battered into submission. This may work in the long run, as it has in the United States, but it can cause horrific tragedy in the short term, also as it did in the United States, and there are no long-term guarantees. I doubt either the international community or the Ivorians want to take this route. Although maybe Gbagbo does.

Perhaps the greatest risk here is that the international community will impose a "democracy" on Ivory Coast—in the name of Alassane Ouattara—that is no real democracy at all for half the people. This may do nothing more than provide Laurent Gbagbo with more justification for bloody-mindedness. The UN et al. should, therefore, sponsor a democracy that has real meaning for Ivorians north and south. This is clearly a major challenge for the international community. It requires a Lester Pearson moment. The alternative is yet more misery for West Africa.

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