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August 21st, 2017

The Effects of Laurent Gbagbo’s ICC Detention Reveal the Degree of Personal Politics in Ivory Coast

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Blog Editor

August 21st, 2017

The Effects of Laurent Gbagbo’s ICC Detention Reveal the Degree of Personal Politics in Ivory Coast

2 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Bianca Moiceanu argues that despite the unlikelihood that former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo will be released from the ICC, the controversy surrounding him fuels a broader conversation on the link between powerful rulers in Africa and violence. It is important to consider human agency and the influence of political personalities alongside structural factors when explaining violence.

 

On 19 July 2017, the International Criminal Court rejected the request for former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo’s interim release. Gbagbo has been detained since 2011, being charged with crimes against humanity after the 2010 post-election violence in which nearly 3000 were killed. The crisis escalated to a full-scale civil war, after incumbent Gbagbo did not recognise the election results, which identified current President Alassane Ouattara as the winner. The struggle ended in April 2011, when Ouattara’s French-backed forces arrested Gbagbo in Abidjan, after atrocities had been committed by both camps.

Laurent Gbagbo addresses the UN while still President of Ivory Coast in 2009 Photo Credit: UN Photo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Both Gbagbo’s removal from the country’s political landscape and his detention in The Hague are aspects of high significance. Both generated a series of outcomes that revealed the depth of personal politics in Ivory Coast and the influence of a strongman-type leader even in absence. Considering a peaceful parliamentary election in 2011 and a presidential election in 2015 with a similar outcome, all against the background of two civil wars, it can be argued that the absence of such a prominent figure represented a turning point in the country’s domestic politics.

The personalisation of politics in many sub-Saharan countries can be traced back to colonialism, when the military and police forces were separated from the rest of society, creating a legacy of domination, which remained visible in the strongman nature of many post-independence leaders. This was complemented by the absence of a sense of common identity, primarily because African states did not emerge from domestic aspirations and struggles, but were artificially created, having borders that did not take into account ethnic configuration.

The issue of identity became salient after the country’s first post-independence leader, Félix  Houphouët-Boigny, died in 1993, and a leadership struggle within his party broke out between Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié. When the latter became president, he revised the electoral code to bar Ouattara and all others of non-Ivorian descent from running for presidency in 1995.  Bédié seized Ivoirité – “Ivorianness” – a concept originally used to describe peaceful coexistence between Akan ethno-linguistic groups of the Christian-dominated southern regions of the Ivory Coast, and Dioula and Senoufo immigrants primarily from Burkina Faso in the north(such as Ouattara), turning it into a tool for political mobilisation.

Ivoirité was further exploited before the 2000 elections through the introduction of a new constitutional provision which required both parents of a presidential candidate to be of Ivorian descent. This excluded Ouattara once more. When Gbagbo became president in 2000, he continued to invoke Ivoirité in his rhetoric, further exacerbating the north-south division which culminated with the events of 2010-2011.

While identity was undoubtedly a major precondition for violence, it is questionable whether it was the actual trigger. If that were the case, there should have been violence in the 2015 presidential elections as well, since the Constitution had not been revised and society was still polarised. What was missing from the 2015 landscape is what seemed to be a common denominator in the previous conflicts: a political figure such as Gbagbo, who embodied the strong ruler typology.

A key precursor to the 2015 moment was the 2011 parliamentary race, which was described by Freedom House as “the first largely peaceful and fair parliamentary election in more than a decade.”  Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) boycotted the race, accusing the Independent Electoral Commission of bias against Ouattara’s party, the Rally of the Republicans (RDR). Although the boycott was seen as problematic at first because of the low voter turnout that could have raised concerns of legitimacy, the elections were not violently contested, placing Ivory Coast on a journey towards relative stability.

As Gbagbo was awaiting trial, his party was to also boycott the 2015 presidential race, advocating that he be released. However, many moderate party members disagreed, as they feared another boycott will weaken them to the point of political irrelevance.  Despite the final decision to participate in the election, the FPI had already been weakened by this internal division, having to resort to forming a coalition with 11 other parties. Titled The Alliance of Democratic Forces ( AFDCI), the coalition ultimately provided an FPI candidate, Pascal Afi N’Guessan.

Following this sequence of events, the 2015 elections faced a decrease of almost 30 per cent in voter turnout compared to the last presidential race. Moreover, there was no run-off, because Ouattara was elected by an overwhelming majority in a process widely described as free and fair. Interestingly, turnout was significantly higher in RDR strongholds, with a discrepancy of up to 40 per cent compared to regions which typically voted for the FPI.

The 2015 presidential election represented an important milestone in the country’s return to peace and stability, an aspect confirmed by the Freedom in the World Report, which stated that the Ivory Coast moved from not free to partly free in the 2010-2015 timeframe.

The low turnout, Ouattara’s landslide victory, and the absence of violence could be explained, among other ways, through the lens of highly personalised politics. Firstly, since Gbagbo was removed from power, turnout may have decreased in his strongholds because voters were interested in the candidate rather than the party, and N’Guessan may have been perceived by many as an unpopular figure since he was part of the FPI moderate faction. This means that people were also unlikely to engage in violent contestation of the results, even if they voted for the AFDCI.

Secondly, voters may have been discouraged by the visible weakness of the FPI into voting either for the RDR (which they thought was more likely to win) or into not voting at all, since their vote for the FPI would not have made much difference. Both arguments imply that  electoral violence is unlikely, because individuals did not feel as strongly about N’Guessan as they did about Gbagbo.

Although it remains unlikely that he will be released, the controversy surrounding Gbagbo nevertheless fuels a broader conversation surrounding the link between powerful rulers and violence in Africa. It is important to consider agency and the influence of political personalities alongside structural factors when explaining violence. The conversation about elections, democracy and violent conflict is far from over, as the Ivory Coast has many unresolved issues, despite modest signs of reconciliation between political parties. Moreover, the recent military uprising in May 2017 and accusations of ‘creeping authoritarianism’ imply the need for only a cautious optimism. Nevertheless, it may be the case that time and Gbagbo’s removal from power have allowed for the creation of a common identity among Ivorians based on recent history, and the experience of two civil wars has been enough to prevent high scale electoral violence from reoccurring.


Bianca Moiceanu is a LSE alumna and Graduate Intern at LSE’s Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa.

 

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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