With two men – incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara – claiming victory in the Ivory Coast’s November runoff presidential elections, the crisis has become bitter and violent, claiming over 200 lives, and sending some 14,000 Ivorians fleeing into neighboring countries. The elections were tightly contested and international observers and the nation’s electoral commission gave the nod to Mr. Ouattara. The West African Economic Community (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, and most individual nations have acknowledged him as president-elect, but President Gbagbo has so far refused to cede power.
Jean Ping, the head of the African Union Commission, told reporters he had asked Mr. Odinga to "lead the monitoring of the situation in Ivory Coast and bolster the efforts being undertaken" to end the crisis.
The November elections were supposed to be the final step in bringing peace to Ivory Coast, which experienced a brutal civil war in 2002, divided largely along ethno-religious lines between a mainly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.
The selection of Odinga as head of a mediation team is both bold and curious, given that Odinga himself was in a very similar post-election crisis in Kenya. In the Dec. 27, 2007 elections, Odinga challenged incumbent President Mwai Kibaki in elections that international observers said were rife with irregularities and evidence of ballot box manipulation. Kenya’s electoral commission declared Mr. Kibaki the winner, and Odinga’s supporters went on a violent rampage. In total, some 1,200 people were killed and 300,000 displaced from their homes by the violence wreaked by supporters of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Party and Kibaki’s Party of National Unity.
An African Union mediation team led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan finally convinced both sides in 2008 to form a coalition government of national unity, a formula that at least ended the violence and produced a newly-passed constitution that would presumably prevent future electoral crises of this kind.
Odinga may carry valuable experience of power-sharing deals with him as mediator, but he will also be carrying some rhetorical baggage. Last week, the Kenyan prime minister called on the AU to remove Ivorian President Gbagbo by force.
“Gbagbo must be forced, even if it means using military means to get rid of him, because now he is just relying on military power, not the people's power," Iranian news agency Press TV quoted Odinga as saying at a press conference Nairobi. “The AU must start taking seriously the situation in Ivory Coast instead of lamenting. Democracy must be preserved.”