While the world’s attention is fixed primarily on turmoil in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, thousands of Ivorians are being murdered in fighting that pits supporters of Côte d’Ivoire incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo against challenger Alassane Ouattara. Both men claim to have won the disputed election in a country already torn by a nine-year civil war.
President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the United Nations have recognized Ouattara as the duly elected president of Côte d’Ivoire, which is French for Ivory Coast. What’s loosely referred to as the international community has accused Gbagbo of assorted human rights violations, including killing some of his political opponents.
Recently, however, the U.N. was forced to acknowledge that both sides have been guilty of killing civilians. Aid workers said that as many as 1,000 people were killed by Ouattara’s forces in Duekoue, a Gbagbo stronghold in western Côte d’Ivoire.
Amid conflicting reports coming out of Abidjan, the commercial capital of the country, it is difficult to know for certain what is going on there. Charles Steele, Jr,, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and I visited Abidjan two months ago and were stunned to see how widespread news reports failed to mirror the reality we witnessed on the ground.
One-sided reporting is reflected in reporters, who routinely refer to Gbagbo as the nation’s “strongman” and Ouattara as the “internationally recognized” president. As I have written in this space, few reporters have read the Ivorian constitution that puts into place a two-step process that determines how national leaders are elected.
Under Article 32 and Article 94 of the Ivorian constitution, ballots are tallied and results are announced by the Independent Electoral Commission. The second and less publicized step is the final declaration of winners made by the Constitutional Council, the equivalent of the United States Supreme Court.
In the case of the disputed presidential election, Ouattara was declared the winner of a run-off on November 28, 2010 by the Independent Electoral Commission, a decision that the U.S., France, and the European Union cited as the basis of their support for the challenger.
Pierre Sane, the Paris-based former general secretary of Amnesty International, notes that the so-called Independent Electoral Commission is anything but independent. Of the 31 members, 20 are from rebel groups and their political supporters.
“One way or the other, the‘Independent Commission’ is in point of fact controlled by the opposition,” Sane wrote in an analysis. “Its chairman is a senior member of the opposition coalition, and a former PDCI minister in the Gbagbo cabinet.”
After examining challenged ballots, the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner by a margin of 51.45 percent to 48.55.
Sarkozy, among others, cried foul because of the seven justices, four are appointed by Gbagbo and three are appointed by the president of the National Assembly. Sarkozy should be one of the last people to complain because, as he knows, the Ivorian constitution is modeled after the French constitution.
In a January interview with me, Gbagbo said the Ivorian judicial system is not unlike the one in the U.S. where the president appoints Supreme Court justices, subject to Senate confirmation.
On March 9, when most of the world was looking at dramatic events in Libya, President Obama issued a three-paragraph statement deploring violence in Côte d’Ivoire that he blamed on “security forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo.”
He added, “As we have said since the election results in Côte d’Ivoire were certified, the people of Côte d’Ivoire elected Alassane Ouattara as their President and Laurent Gbagbo lost the election. Former President Gbagbo’s efforts to hold on to power at the expense of his own country are an insult to the universal rights of his people, and the democracy that Côte d’Ivoire deserves… It is time for former President Gbagbo to heed the will of his people, and to complete a peaceful transition of power to President Ouattara.”
President Obama is wrong. It’s time for the United States, France, and even some African countries to stop trying to force their will on a sovereign country. Democracy can often be a messy process and the U.S. can’t intervene in every country that elects a leader it opposes. Clearly, mistakes have been made by supporters of both Gbagbo and Ouattara. Regardless of which side one favors, Ivorians followed their constitution in choosing Gbagbo over his challenger and that process should be respected.
Considering the sharp political divisions in Côte d’Ivoire, it is unlikely that either Ouattara or Gbagbo could be an effective leader under current circumstances. Therefore, the so-called international community should stop favoring one candidate over the other and instead call for an immediate halt to the killing. Once that’s accomplished, a new election should be held with each candidate obliged to honor the outcome.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.