Why the African Union may struggle to mediate in Ivory Coast

Four representatives of the African Union arrived in Ivory Coast today for yet another attempt at mediating the country's presidential election crisis.

Emanuel Ekra/AP
South African President Jacob Zuma (c.) is escorted by security agents as he arrives at the airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast Monday. A panel of African heads of state sent to resolve the political crisis in Ivory Coast began arriving Monday in the country's commercial hub following another weekend of brutal repression.

Hundreds of Young Patriots in multicolored soccer uniforms jogged and did jumping jacks in front of the Abidjan airport in Ivory Coast on Sunday. They worked out in a show of military discipline and strength that had one goal: to prevent the African Union (AU) mediators from doing their jobs.

“Under no circumstances will [Burkina Faso President] Blaise Compaore set foot on Ivorian soil,” one protest leader screamed. “We won't let him,” he said to roars of approval.

This is the kind of welcome an AU panel of African presidents was facing ahead of its arrival in Ivory Coast today, supposedly with a resolution to the country's political standoff in hand.

The panel, named at an AU summit in January, is charged with arbitrating between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power, and his challenger Alassane Ouattara, recognized by the international community and the country's electoral commission as the winner of the November presidential election.

But faith in the panel's ability to succeed is weak. Their arrival – at least the sixth attempt to mediate a peaceful way out of the nearly three-month-old presidential power struggle – comes after another outbreak of violence over the weekend. Pro-Gbagbo forces reportedly opened fire on a group of Ouattara supporters, killing at least four, according to state television.

Aggressive 'Young Patriots'

The Young Patriots, an aggressive and often violent organization that supports Mr. Gbagbo, has been protesting against a perceived pro-Ouattara bias on the AU panel – and it may have worked. Mr. Compaore announced late Sunday that he would not come to Abidjan. The other four leaders – from South Africa, Tanzania, Chad, and Mauritania – arrived and are expected to present their solution to the crisis to both sides before making it public.

The panel was charged with conducting a binding arbitration between Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ouattara, whose victory was certified by the United Nations. The UN oversaw the vote and did its own tabulation.

But those results were overturned by the country's constitutional council, which invalidated more than half a million votes in Ouattara strongholds because of accusations of violence and intimidation, and proclaimed Gbagbo the winner. Since then, Gbagbo has attempted to govern as usual. But one by one, foreign governments that recognize Ouattara as the victor have cut ties with Gbagbo.

This week, at least seven major banks shut down operations in Ivory Coast, spreading fears of a cash shortage and leaving civil servants seeking to cash their February paychecks scratching their heads. Thousands of people are hoarding cash, and fears of deflation are starting to set in.

Western diplomats think that if Gbagbo can't pay the military, he won't be able to remain in power. But while the economic pressure seems to favor Ouattara, the search for a political solution appears to be as lost as ever.

The AU is one of the organizations that came out in favor of Ouattara early on, certifying his victory in early December. That certification was reiterated when the arbitration panel was announced, leaving the impression that their final report was politically influenced from the outset.

Gbagbo seems to have recognized this, and could be using the panel's one-month working timeline to buy more time in power. His foreign minister said in early February that Gbagbo supports the arbitration, although he wouldn't respect any decision that didn't concur with the constitutional council. In other words, Gbagbo wouldn't accept a solution that doesn't recognize him as winner.

Why wait for the African Union?

Ouattara also seems to have given up on the AU panel and has turned to to a more aggressive strategy for assuming power. When the people of Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their leaders, they didn't need an international body like the AU, Ouattara's Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said last week. Why then, he asked, are we waiting for them to save us?

Soro called on Ouattara supporters to descend into the streets in an “Egypt-style” uprising to force Gbagbo from power. This weekend, protests took place across the country, peacefully in the north, where Ouattara's support is strong, and with deadly consequences in the south, where Gbagbo continues to hold the reins of power.

At least three people were killed in the Abobo district of Abidjan, where clashes between Ouattara supporters and police have left at least a dozen people dead since the beginning of the year.

The UN says that almost 300 people have died in post-election violence at a rate of three or four a day.

The possibility of violence and a return to civil war hangs heavily in many people's minds as each side digs in and looks less and less likely to accept any solution that doesn't go their way.

Some still peg their hopes on a powersharing arrangement like the ones implemented after similarly contested elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe. These agreements have proved to be almost unworkable in practice, but they did avoid the worst outcome: that of civil war.

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