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Global Viewpoint

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.

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The resulting cross-national divisions have been preyed upon by politicians willing to ride ethnic bigotry and regional chauvinism into power. Ouattara, for instance, was prevented by coup leader General Robert Guei from contesting the 2000 election based on highly exclusivist “Ivoirite” citizenship laws intended to disenfranchise northerners considered of foreign parentage.

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If, as is likely, Ouattara takes power, his biggest challenge will be reunifying a country still divided by the legacy of the 2002 civil war. That means tackling national identity and citizenship issues, reforming land tenure, and devolving power from the presidency to achieve more representative and inclusive governance.

For Ivory Coast as elsewhere, it is especially important that such devolution create more linkages with the large segments of the population whose lives are still governed on a daily basis by African customary and traditional institutions.

Four priorities for reform

What goes for Ivory Coast goes for so many other states. The redesign of Africa’s governing institutions should keep in mind four priorities, all of which apply to Ivory Coast.

Balance and separation of powers

First, Africa’s “big man” political tradition must be replaced by new laws and arrangements that better balance power among independent government institutions to achieve real accountability. Ivory Coast’s Second Republic (2000) constitution provides for a strong presidency within the framework of a separation of powers, but, as in most of Africa, the political system is dominated by the president.

Ivory Coast's 225-member unicameral National Assembly largely passes legislation introduced by the president, and it often acts as a highly partisan and divisive rubber stamp for the presidency. The crisis of disunity facing the country is of such magnitude that consideration should be given to constitutional reform establishing a bicameral parliament that keeps the directly elected lower house, and adds an upper house of traditional authorities and prominent citizens that represents the broader interests of society, and acts as a stabilizing body to help forge national unity.

Strengthening the legislative and judicial branches of government is key to achieving a balance of power that will create more accountability and thus greater national harmony.

Equal distribution of power and wealth

Second, power and wealth must be diffused throughout society in order to bring government closer to the people. Power in Africa is not only concentrated in the office of the president, but in the capital cities as well. If well-coordinated at the national level, the distribution of power and resources from the center to local elected and administrative bodies is central to curbing corruption and promoting efficient delivery of services.

Engaging traditional authorities in this way can also help to increase the government’s presence and legitimacy at the village level. Focusing on rural development, especially investment in the agricultural sector, will enhance this power shift since the agricultural sector employs close to 70 percent of the economically active population in Africa.

Ivory Coast is the world’s leading cocoa producer, and agriculture represents 24 percent of its GDP, with 60 percent to 70 percent of Ivorians engaged in some form of agricultural activity.

Education and training

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