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Concerns about Ivory Coast election prompt unexpectedly strong foreign response

Africa is rife with the kind of political failure seen now in the Ivory Coast after its election, but UN and other foreign involvement show that there is an interest in making this turn out differently.

By G. Pascal ZacharyGuest blogger / December 31, 2010

A UN Soldier from Pakistan, stands guard outside the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Dec. 30. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara is widely regarded as being the rightful winner of recent presidential elections, although incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo refuses to relinquish power.

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The stalemate in Ivory Coast continues: Laurent Gbagbo, having lost the recent presidential election, still won’t relinquish his power over the government. And new talks today, by visiting heads of state in the region, did not persuade him to change his mind. Gbagbo is also staring down a threat from Nigeria, the largest West African country, of military action against him if he does not leave.

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On the surface, the situation looks like another messy, embarassing political failure in a part of the world grown accustomed to them. But there is something different about the impasse in Ivory Coast. One thing the post-election crisis making clear: the international community cares deeply about elections and their outcomes in the sub-Saharan. The United Nations especially cares, and has done a great service to electoral reformers in the region by seating the ambasaador from Ivory Coast who represents the still unformed government of Alassane Ouatarra, the recognized winner in the country’s recent presidential election. As Stephen Smith told the Voice of America’s enterprising correspondent Nico Colombant, the UN’s action following a disputed African election appears unprecendented. Says Smith: “For the first time that I can remember a special representative of the United Nations has called the bluff on an election, not only observing an election, but actually speaking out after the election and clearly certifying who was the winner and secondly being followed by the international community in an unprecedented way.”

The question now is whether “technical” processes prove decisive in matters on the ground in Ivory Coast. I told Colombant that well-intended outsiders need to move beyond technique and engage the existential issues that shape the social-political reality in the country. Colombant quotes me at length in a a fuller audio interview that he posted on his personal blog. Colombant nicely summarizes the gist of my comments in his own post:

“There is no real effort on the part of these outsiders [Zachary says] to understand anything about Ivory Coast. It is all just, here is a technical process, just follow it but you see the shortcomings of that. It is both promising but also the difficulties that (Mr.) Ouattara will face if he does take full control of the government are not trivial, that the longer that this stalemate goes on the more that is a possible outcome, that people will just say, hey the world is a very messy place right now, let us just abandon Ivory Coast to this dysfunctional politics because one thing that a lot of African countries have shown and I think Ivory Coast has shown it as well is that commercial life can sometimes prove surprisingly resilient in the face of a political breakdown.”

G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.

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