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Ivory Coast election crisis: A roadmap for African political reform

As Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo refuses to cede power to election-winner Alassane Ouattara, this divided country has become a poster child for Africa's crisis of governance. For fundamental reform, Ivory Coast should take a cue from China, not just the West.

By Jendayi E. Frazer and Nicolas Berggruen / December 30, 2010


Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is living up to the stereotype of an African leader clinging to power, disconnected from the country’s citizens and ignoring their expressed will.

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The drama is cast as a personal power struggle between Mr. Gbagbo, who was never properly elected, yet ruled Ivory Coast for 10 years after the flawed 2000 election, and Alassane Ouattara, the candidate in the Nov. 28 runoff who is preferred as the country’s next president by 54 percent of voting Ivorians.

The world has rightly rallied to back the people’s choice. The United Nations, the African Union, the US, and France have all called for Gbagbo to turn over power to Mr. Ouattara.

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A fundamental problem in African governance

However, this fixation on the personal failings of leaders obscures the deeper problem: a fundamental disjuncture between Africa’s modern political institutions and its ethnic communities and traditional institutions. This disjuncture, so well reflected in Ivory Coast, is at the heart of the continent’s crisis of governance. Contemporary African states are poorly functioning hybrids of indigenous cultures and customs mixed with Arab and European models of governance that arrived with invasions, colonialism, and migration.

Rather than merely search yet again for short-term solutions in the violent aftermath of an election, it would seem more sensible to look for ways to prevent future crises rooted in Africa’s dysfunctional political systems.

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The crisis in Ivory Coast manifests a deep rift between the largely Muslim north and Christian south exacerbated by ethnic tensions – a result of colonial borders drawn without regard for the integrity of African ethnic communities. Since Ivory Coast's borders cut across principal ethnic groups that have a significant presence in neighboring countries, every crisis is a regional crisis.


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