African Union backs Ouattara as president in Ivory Coast

After months of indecision, the African Union has formally backed opposition candidate Ouattara as Ivory Coast president. Ouattara now has to figure out how to take over a government that the former president refuses to give up.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Supporters of Alassane Ouattara raise their shoes, symbolizing the placing of a curse on Laurent Gbagbo, as they chant 'Gbagbo, thief' after participating in a special Muslim prayer that brought together Christian and Muslim women in honor of the civilians killed in three months of post-election violence, at a mosque in the Treichville neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast Friday, March 11.

Three months after Ivory Coast’s political crisis began, the African Union has called on incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo to step down, paving the way for opposition leader Alassane Ouattara to finally take on the powers of president.

The AU’s decision followed a fact-finding mission by five African heads of state, including South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, and months of violence that killed at least 365 people and displaced tens of thousands of others in the capital Abidjan and elsewhere. Mr. Ouattara, who attended the AU meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week, is expected to return to Abidjan soon.

Now, all eyes turn to Mr. Gbagbo, who chose not to attend the AU meeting and rejects the AU’s compromise solution, which envisages Mr. Ouattara as president of a power-sharing government that includes members of Gbagbo’s party but not Gbagbo himself. Gbagbo has threatened not to let Ouattara back into the country and has issued an order to prevent continued air supply flights for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Abidjan.

The AU’s decision is a relief to diplomats based in Africa because several AU members seemed to be deeply divided over whether to support Gbagbo or Ouattara. The African Union initially joined the UN, the European Union, and several independent election observer missions in declaring Ouattara the outright winner of the Nov. 28, 2010 elections, but members of the fact-finding mission, notably President Zuma, cast doubt on that election victory and said the results were “inconclusive,” calling instead for a power-sharing deal. Some political analysts say the delay in making a decision may have given Gbagbo time to arm himself and prolong the conflict.

“What the AU has done through prevarication, with their flip flopping, is to give Gbagbo time to dig in his heels and work toward a military resistance to this decision by the AU,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “This will cost lives on the ground.”

In its decision, made at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU accepted the recommended solution crafted by the panel of five African presidents, which included:

  • Requesting that Gbagbo withdraw and Ivory Coast’s Constitutional Council swear in Ouattara
  • Recommending that Ouattara form a national unity and reconciliation government with other parties, including Gbagbo’s
  • Calling for the establishment of a Council of the Republic to promote national reconciliation
  • Calling for media to stop issuing ethnic or political hate messages
  • A lifting of the blockade of the Gulf Hotel, where Ouattara has resided under UN protection since November
  • Adoption of an amnesty law for all post-elections violence, exempting the president, prime minister, and senior military officers from prosecution

The AU’s decision seemed to have little effect on the security situation in Ivory Coast itself. On Friday there were reports of continued heavy arms fire between supporters of Ouattara and the armed forces loyal to Gbagbo. In Abidjan, a Gbagbo spokesman outright rejected a power-sharing deal with Ouattara.

"What is on offer is power sharing and the very principle of it is unacceptable," said the spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, in Abidjan.

Missing from the AU’s decision is a plan for implementation in the likely event that Gbagbo refuses to step down. The AU plan calls for reinforcing the UN peacekeeping force in Abidjan with troops from the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (primarily troops from Nigeria). But these additional forces have not been given a strong mandate to use military force beyond mere protection of civilians and keeping the peace, and the use of force to remove Gbagbo does not seem to have been discussed.

Also missing from the AU decision is an explanation of the evidence that led the AU to accept Ouattara’s victory, says Mr. Matshiqi.

“I was hoping the panel of five African presidents [would] have included the evidence from the panel of experts, explaining why they think either Ouattara or Gbagbo is the winner,” says Matshiqi. “If you explain the evidence, then it would make it easy show that Gbagbo has no leg to stand on. When you have such a climate of uncertainty, you need transparency and accountability. The AU needs to explain to the continent their initial decision to support Ouattara, their reasons for departing from that decision, and then why they reverted to their original decision.”

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