The Obama administration’s approach to Ivory Coast's incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, based on reporting from The New York Times, suggests that US officials are caught in a time warp. They’re behaving as if it is the 1990s, and their object is to induce former dictator Joseph Désiré Mobuto from power in the Congo. The proffer of “asylum” in the US – or a plum posting with an international agency — has the ring of lunacy about it, as if the administration was mistaking Mr. Gbagbo for former Liberian Preisdent Charles Taylor, former Zambian President Kenneth Kuanda, or even current Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe.
Gbagbo may possess many flaws, but he is not in need of asylum or an international job for which he neither suited professionally nor temperamentally. Nor will comical offers of relocating him to the US induce him to leave Ivory Coast. Gbagbo might indeed be wondering who is crazier, him or the US officials assigned to oversee his exit from office.
His defiant response to foreign criticism is thus no crazier than the American conception of his exit. In his address on the eve of 2011, Gbagbo said the pressure for him to quit amounted to “an attempted coup d’etat carried out under the banner of the international community”.
To be sure, Gbagbo must go; not in a coup d’etat, but in a legal, necessary and inevitable transfer of power. But once out of power, Gbagbo should be free to choose where he wishes to live, and even include Ivory Coast on the list of his future domiciles.
I recall distinctly how former President Jerry Rawlings in neighboring Ghana was able to live peacefully amid his former subjects after he was “termed out” ten years ago. One night in 2002, while dancing with my Nigerian wife, Chizo, to a hi-life band in Ghana's capital, Accra, I found myself admiring Mr. Rawlings up close. He was dancing with his wife’s sister barely inches from me. I wrote an article at the time called “Dancing with Dictators” in which I marveled at the capacity of Ghanaians to permit their former dictator-turned-elected-president to live peacefully among them.
So, the answer to the question of whither Gbagbo post presidency is simple: let him choose the terms of his persistence.
The zany notion presented by the Obama administration, expressed to The New York Times by one anonymous official, that “the longer the stalemate ensues, and the more violence there is, the more that window closes,” reflects an ossified view of African politics, a bygone understanding of the internal dynamics within Ivory Coast and West Africa.
The reality that Obama’s people refuse to face is that two years into office, their president has been unable to forge an effective policy for US engagement with Nigeria, the sub-regional economic powerhouse, or Ivory Coast, the most important Francophone country.
Only in Liberia, where the US has a legacy of outsized influence, has Obama’s presence been felt. Everywhere else in West Africa, even in docile Ghana, the new president has left no mark, which is why, as I noted last month in the Christian Science Monitor, his political fortunes appear to run counter the fortunes of American relations with the sub-Saharan.
To be sure, in the days and weeks ahead, the US will influence the events in Ivory Coast. But Obama’s amateur Africanists should not flatter themselves: their influence, at best, is limited.
Only by playing well with others – the French, the United Nations, and the sub-regional ECOWAS grouping dominated by Nigeria – will the US have any role in the outcome in Abidjan. For Americans in power, the era of hubris and over-reach – towards Africa and the international community – has yet to end.