Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ivory Coast crisis

Ivory Coast crisis
Arab News Editorial
Latest developments uncover the tribal and religious fissures of this nation

As the violence in Ivory Coast continues in the wake of political turmoil following the presidential runoff vote held last month, the number of dead, wounded and missing persons is increasing rapidly. The nearly 200 deaths have stoked fears of a civil war reminiscent of the conflict the West African nation of 22 million suffered eight years ago.

The problem is that as it stands now, Ivory Coast is in the unique but impractical position of having two presidents. The country's electoral commission ruled that President-elect Alassane Ouattara had won, but the Constitutional Council said incumbent Laurent Gbagbo had been elected, citing vote rigging in some northern areas.

The international community recognizes the winner as Ouattara who also seems to have captured the country's vital airwaves, though Gbagbo maintains control of the military, convincing him he can ride out the storm. Some of the resource-rich country's richest men, with their well-connected vested interests, are also staunch defenders of the Gbagbo clique.

Gbagbo is widely viewed as the champion of the rights of the people of the southern part of the country who regard themselves as rightful sons of the soil, though the southerners conveniently overlook that the northerners are precisely the workers who tilled the land that turned Ivory Coast into the world's largest producer of cocoa.

Even if Ouattara assumes office, the army might be reluctant to obey his orders that would be a grave error in judgment. The more the Ivorian generals enmesh themselves into the country's political fray, the stronger their claim to be the kingmakers, which could blur the current separation of powers between the executive and the military establishment.

The current crisis has split the nation into two warring groups locked in combat over the political future of the country. The mood in both the Christian south where Gbagbo proponents predominate and in the Muslim north and central parts of the country where Ouattara supporters rule is restive as the crisis has uncovered the tribal and religious fissures of a terribly fractured nation.

And yet the cultural driving force of Ivory Coast has been its ethnic and religious diversity. The founding father of the Ivory Coast, former President Felix Houphouet Boigney, was a symbol of national unity, seen neither as Christian nor Muslim, southerner nor northerner. It really didn't matter what he believed insofar as religion was concerned.

A power-sharing government has been ruled out so the division of the country into separate areas may last a while — with the death toll continuing to rise — until a long-term solution can be found. If the impasse continues, the implications are that elections don't matter and that defeated candidates who have military support can stay in power anyway.

Given that Africa has actually made enormous progress over the past two decades in strengthening the institutions of democracy and in holding elections, it would be a tragedy for the Ivorian people and for Africa generally if the world sees the Ivory Coast elections as yet another example of failed African governance.

This bears more than passing resemblance to the situation in Sudan. The north-south divide, the Muslim-Christian chasm, has emerged as an intractable political challenge in numerous African nations. The fissures, it is feared, in both cases are along the religious fault-line.

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