In early April, in the final days of Côte d'Ivoire's torturous four-month-long political crisis, French and UN helicopters bombarded the presidential residence in Abidjan. This military operation sealed the fate of the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, paving the way for Alassane Ouattara, the widely recognized winner of the November 2010 presidential elections, to claim office. But the French and UN action had another effect: it triggered commentary and outrage about international interference -- in particular on the part of France -- in African affairs. Ivoirian newspapers backing Gbagbo fulminated about France's desire to retake its former colonies. The French press, meanwhile, obsessed about whether France's military intervention spelled a new era of Françafrique, the term, first introduced in the 1950s, for French interference in the internal affairs of its former African colonies. The New York Times ran a story about France's "long shadow" over its former colonies, and pundits around the world worried that these international actions could doom Ouattara's legitimacy.

Such a Eurocentric focus, however, both mischaracterizes the internal dynamics of the conflict and misses the more significant diplomatic development -- namely, the role of African regional organizations. In the end, France and the UN did not win the war for Ouattara and his self-styled "Republican Forces." By the time France and the UN intervened, Ouattara's forces controlled 90 percent of the country and were on the verge of taking the commercial capital, Abidjan. International forces did manage to hasten Gbagbo's demise: in effect, accomplishing the inevitable and preventing a final attack on Abidjan, which would have resulted in a terrible humanitarian crisis.

More important, however, was the role played by two regional organizations: the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States. In a remarkable display of diplomatic consensus from organizations that are often considered ineffective, both the AU and ECOWAS held a consistent position throughout the Ivoirian crisis. Unlike in Kenya and Zimbabwe in 2008 -- where democracy was subverted by power-sharing agreements that arose from fraudulent elections -- and despite some internal disagreement, the AU and ECOWAS stood firm that Ouattara had won the election and that Gbagbo would have to go. ECOWAS went a step further and threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo if necessary. This consistency from African regional organizations had a major impact: it shrank the space for diplomatic maneuver for Gbagbo, a consummate and clever bargainer; allowed the Central Bank of West African States to cut off Gbagbo's money supply, which weakened Gbagbo's standing with his own military and the civilian government; and, crucially, proved essential in obtaining unanimous UN Security Council approval for military action against Gbagbo's positions in Abidjan.

Perhaps even more important was the precedent set by these actions. The AU and ECOWAS certainly have their flaws. The AU, for example, has been reluctant to criticize its former head Muammar al-Qaddafi. But over the last decade, it has developed a policy of strongly opposing unconstitutional regime change. Since 2000, it has condemned every coup that has taken place in Africa and, in most of the recent cases, has imposed sanctions on the coup leaders. ECOWAS has demonstrated similar consistency. The response to the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire should thus be seen not as some one-off operation but rather as evidence of a largely unheralded policy of pro-democracy activism on the part of key African organizations that are taking an increasingly strong stand against illegal seizures of power.


Few predicted that Côte d'Ivoire's 2010 elections would end with a firefight in the presidential palace. A brief civil war in 2002 and 2003 led to the division of the country into a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south. UN peacekeepers, including 400 French soldiers, kept the hostile camps separate. Following a series of peace accords between 2003 and 2007, elections were finally set for October 2010. They were to be the first elections certified by the UN in Africa and were met with high hopes and significant international investment.

Fourteen candidates ran in the first round, and an impressive 84 percent of the electorate cast ballots. Gbagbo came in first place, with 38 percent of the vote. Ouattara, a former prime minister and official at the International Monetary Fund, ran second, with 32 percent. Henri Konan Bédié, president between 1993 and 1999, came in third, with 25 percent. In keeping with the electoral code, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) tallied and then announced the provisional results. The Constitutional Council, the country's highest court, then validated them. The UN operation in Côte d'Ivoire, led by Choi Young-jin, the secretary-general's special representative, certified the election based on its own independent tabulation. Choi appeared on national television and congratulated Ivoirians for their high turnout and orderly participation in the elections.

However, the exemplary conduct of the first round did not extend into the runoff, held on November 28. Gbagbo's and Ouattara's supporters engaged in violent clashes, especially in the far western part of the country. Still, more than 80 percent of voters turned out and cast their ballots in an election that European Union and UN observers found, on balance, to be fair and transparent. The real trouble began on November 30, when the IEC attempted to announce the provisional results. During the internationally televised event, two commission members who supported Gbagbo interrupted the proceedings by tearing the tally sheets from the hands of Bamba Yacouba, the IEC's spokesperson -- a moment that would come to mark the beginning of a four-month drama.


Gbagbo had placed old friends in high places should the election not go as planned. In particular, he had appointed Paul Yao N'Dré to head the Constitutional Council, Côte d'Ivoire's highest court and the one that had final say over the election's outcome. The day after the spectacle at the IEC's headquarters, Yao N'Dré declared that the court now had the responsibility to count the 20,073 tally sheets from each polling place and declare the victor. The council was also considering a complaint lodged by Gbagbo's party that votes in the north should be annulled due to election-day violence, which the party claimed prevented its supporters from voting. Meanwhile, blocked from his offices by government security agents, the head of the IEC, Youssouf Bakayoko, went to the UN-protected Golf Hotel and announced the provisional results on December 2. Ouattara had won, he declared, with 54 percent of the vote.

Yao N'Dré, however, quickly dismissed the IEC's results as null and void. The IEC was required to announce its results within three days of the vote, he said, which it had failed to do. In fact, the electoral code only requires that the IEC deliver the tally sheets to the Constitutional Council within three days, which it had done. On national television on the evening of December 2, Yao N'Dré presented the court's results. He prefaced his remarks by stating that he had invalidated the vote in seven regions in the north "because of serious irregularities in the integrity of the poll." Once these votes were eliminated, Gbagbo won the election with 51.45 percent of the vote, he claimed.

Choi, the UN special representative, disagreed. The morning after Yao N'Dré's proclamation, he certified the IEC tally based on his office's independent count. Choi noted that UN election observers had recorded little disruption in northern polling stations. In fact, voting irregularities had been greatest in the west, where Gbagbo had won the majority of the votes.

On December 4, Yao N'Dré swore in his good friend Gbagbo as the constitutionally elected president. That same day, Ouattara also took an oath of office as president of the republic. Côte d'Ivoire was thus left with two men claiming to be its president.

African leaders were not amused by this political circus. The AU and ECOWAS quickly condemned Gbagbo's usurpation of power. On December 4, the AU expressed its "total rejection of any attempt to create a fait accompli to undermine the electoral process and the will of the people." It appointed former South African President Thabo Mbeki to "find a legitimate and peaceful solution to the crisis."

The principal instruments guiding the AU's response were the organization's Declaration on the Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government (known as the Lomé Declaration) and the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union. The Lomé Declaration was adopted in July 2000 and condemns unconstitutional changes in government, which, in addition to military coups and armed rebel takeovers, were determined to include "the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and regular elections." The Peace and Security Council (PSC), meanwhile, is responsible for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts. Among other powers, it can impose sanctions on regimes that have taken power unconstitutionally, in line with the Lomé Declaration.

The PSC rightly viewed Gbagbo's actions as an example of an incumbent who refuses to relinquish power. According to the AU's rules, its policy is first to condemn such actions and insist on respect for constitutional order. The AU then gives the "perpetrator" up to six months to conform to the country's constitution. During this stage, the AU member government is suspended from the organization. The AU also seeks the assistance of "African leaders and personalities" and regional organizations such as ECOWAS. If after six months there is no change, the AU applies targeted sanctions in cooperation with the international community.

This is precisely what happened with Côte d'Ivoire. On December 9, the PSC suspended Côte d'Ivoire from the AU and appointed first Mbeki and later Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga as emissaries to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power. After several failed mediation missions, in late January, the PSC appointed a panel of five African presidents to resolve the crisis. Six weeks later, on March 10, the panel reaffirmed that Ouattara was the legitimate winner of the election. For its part, ECOWAS also condemned Gbagbo's usurpation of power and urged "all stakeholders to accept the results declared by the electoral commission." On December 7, it applied Article 45 of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and suspended Côte d'Ivoire from the organization. During an extraordinary session held in Abuja on December 24, ECOWAS threatened "the use of legitimate force to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people" if Gbagbo refused to step down. Three months later, ECOWAS formally requested that the UN Security Council strengthen the mandate of the local UN representative "to use all necessary means" to protect civilians and transfer power to Ouattara.

The consistency that the AU and ECOWAS displayed throughout the Ivoirian crisis was no small achievement. Both organizations faced internal dissent, including from powerful states such as South Africa, which at times appeared to waver. But in the end, the organizations managed their internal differences and unequivocally recognized Ouattara as the rightful president while calling on Gbagbo to step down. They chose somewhat different approaches: the AU consistently advocated for a political solution, whereas from early on ECOWAS threatened military force. Ultimately, ECOWAS did not intervene -- Gbagbo warned of risks to West African nationals living in Côte d'Ivoire should ECOWAS do so. Moreover, the organization had financial constraints, and the head of ECOWAS, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, was then facing his own reelection battle. Still, on the whole, the organizations took tough, unambiguous, and visible stances throughout the crisis.


Although the strong response of the AU and ECOWAS to the Côte d'Ivoire crisis surprised some, the two bodies in fact have a demonstrated record of taking action against illegal seizures of power. Their pro-democratic intervention in Côte d'Ivoire, in other words, did not come out of nowhere.

Over the last decade, there have been nine successful coups d'état in Africa: in the Central African Republic (2003), Guinea-Bissau (2003), São Tomé and Príncipe (2003), Togo (2005), Mauritania (2005 and 2008), Guinea (2008), Madagascar (2009), and Niger (2010). In all these cases, the AU condemned the coup, and in all but two cases (São Tomé and Príncipe and Guinea-Bissau), it suspended the relevant country from the organization. In São Tomé and Príncipe, the restoration of constitutional order and of the elected president took place within two weeks of the coup. In Guinea-Bissau, the widely despised and undemocratic president, Kumba Yalá, voluntarily resigned two days after the coup. In the West African cases, ECOWAS similarly condemned the coups and suspended the member states until their governments were returned to constitutional order.

These policies have their roots in the complex African politics of the 1990s, during a time of major transition from one-party political systems to multiparty elections. In 1989, only five of the 47 states in sub-Saharan Africa had democratic multiparty political systems; by the late 1990s, however, only four countries had not held multiparty presidential or parliamentary elections. To be sure, some of these contests were deeply flawed, but a new norm of multiparty elections had taken hold in Africa. Yet there were also more than a dozen successful coups between January 1990 and July 1999. These coups threatened to reverse the democratic trend and, in some cases, triggered mass human rights violations. They also ultimately led the AU's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), to take an increasingly hard line against unconstitutional regime changes.

A key case in the development of this policy shift was Sierra Leone, where in 1997 a coup deposed the democratically elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The OAU called for the return of constitutional order and asked ECOWAS to take a leading role in resolving the conflict. An ECOWAS military force led by Nigeria eventually intervened to reinstate Kabbah. Later, in July 1999, the OAU demanded that four states -- Comoros, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), Guinea-Bissau, and Niger -- restore their constitutional governments (albeit with limited effect: in the last two cases, elections took place in November of that year, but in the first two, elections were not held until 2002, and even then they were deeply flawed). The July 2000 Lomé Declaration formalized this emergent policy against coups.

As with the AU, ECOWAS' pro-democratic regional policies emerged through ad hoc interventions. ECOWAS improvised solutions to crises in Liberia (1989), Sierra Leone (1997), and Guinea-Bissau (1998), mounting a military force to protect civilians and, in the latter two cases, to restore democratically elected governments. These experiences led the organization to adopt a coherent set of pro-democracy principles in its December 2001 Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Article 45 of that protocol empowers ECOWAS to impose sanctions on member states "when democracy is brought to an end by any means or where there is massive violation of Human Rights in a Member State." That document was repeatedly cited in ECOWAS' resolutions and communiqués on the Côte d'Ivoire crisis, including in its December 24 declaration threatening to use "legitimate force" to remove Gbagbo from power.


Unfortunately, African diplomacy did not force Gbagbo out of office. His obstinacy left Ouattara with few choices but military force, and in late March, pro-Ouattara forces launched a military offensive from their bases in the north. The attack took just four days to sweep across the southern half of the country, and the Republican Forces met little resistance. On March 30, they captured the capital city of Yamoussoukro. Most of the government's defense forces abandoned their positions and retreated to Abidjan. Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's prime minister, gave Gbagbo a few hours to flee the country before his troops marched toward Abidjan, when, Soro promised, things would become "a lot more complicated for him."

But Gbagbo dug in his heels and rallied his hard-core supporters to defend Abidjan. To his surprise, his army chief of staff, General Philippe Mangou, abandoned the regime, taking refuge in the South African embassy. Following Mangou's defection, dozens of demoralized military and paramilitary officers similarly left the Gbagbo camp and pledged their allegiance to Ouattara. A full accounting of these military defections is yet to be written, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the soldiers did not want to fight for a president who faced total diplomatic isolation in Africa and had fewer and fewer resources to pay state employees. The battle for Abidjan began in earnest on April 1. It ended ten days later, after French and UN attack helicopters destroyed the heavy weapons encircling the presidential residence and the Republican Forces arrested Gbagbo.

The strong and consistent positions of the AU and ECOWAS toward the Côte d'Ivoire crisis proved critical to this international intervention. All the UN Security Council resolutions on Côte d'Ivoire's electoral stalemate referred to the initiatives taken by the AU and ECOWAS. When talking to the press, Western diplomats often cited the role of African diplomatic leadership. For example, the U.S. ambassador to Côte d'Ivoire, Phillip Carter, announced, "We work with our African partners. We're not on the lead of this. . . . This is an African thing."

In an especially important example of international action building on African consensus, UN Security Council Resolution 1975, passed in late March, authorized French and UN forces "to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population" in Côte d'Ivoire. This mandate set the stage for the combined forces to take out the heavy weapons surrounding the presidential residence, which in turn enabled pro-Ouattara troops to arrest Gbagbo and hundreds of his supporters on April 11. The resolution, jointly introduced by France and Nigeria, directly followed from ECOWAS' own resolution some days earlier calling on the UN Security Council to strengthen the UN's mandate in Côte d'Ivoire. Resolution 1975 also followed the AU's March 10 decision, through the PSC, to affirm its high-level panel's binding recognition of Ouattara as the legitimately elected president. Nearly every member of the Security Council who spoke after the unanimous vote cited the role of the AU and ECOWAS. The British ambassador to the UN stated that measures in Resolution 1975 supported the AU's efforts to find a political solution and responded to ECOWAS' request to the Security Council for a stronger mandate. At the very least, African consensus on Côte d'Ivoire facilitated a tough Security Council resolution that paved the way for military action. It seems hard to imagine that such a robust resolution would have earned support from all 15 members of the Security Council, including China, India, Russia, and South Africa, without a strong regional consensus.

Yet the central role played by African regional actors in resolving the conflict has received little play in the French or the U.S. press. Instead, in the days following the aerial bombardment of Gbagbo's residence, journalists described the involvement of French troops in Côte d'Ivoire as a continuation of France's neocolonial policies toward its former colonies. This view plays into the hands of Gbagbo's supporters. In reality, the AU and ECOWAS recognized an unconstitutional regime change when they saw it, and the positions they took were consistent with their stated policies and previous actions on illegal seizures of power.

For many years, "African solutions to African problems" has been a catchall slogan promoted by donor countries and African leaders alike. At the most general level, the maxim implies that Africans will take more responsibility for the multiple challenges they face. But critics have worried that the phrase could become an excuse for powerful states in the West to neglect Africa or for authoritarian leaders, such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, to reject criticisms of human rights abuses. Côte d'Ivoire showed that neither scenario is necessarily the case. African leaders repeatedly condemned Gbagbo's flagrant violation of democratic norms, and France and the UN intervened militarily when it counted. What happened in Côte d'Ivoire is thus consistent with an emergent, pro-democracy policy in which African heads of state are taking on significant roles in conflict resolution.

African regional diplomacy has evolved from the OAU's policy of noninterference in the heyday of the Cold War. It is now demonstrating an increasing willingness to condemn and take action against illegal seizures of power. The strong policy against coups emerged from the experience of the 1990s and the first decade of this century, and the Côte d'Ivoire crisis has shown that African regional diplomacy may now be taking a more principled stand on democratically held elections.

At the very least, Côte d'Ivoire's Constitutional Council seems to have gotten the message. On May 5, in a stunning reversal, the same Yao N'Dré who once proclaimed Gbagbo president declared Ouattara the constitutionally elected president. He explained the court's decision on the basis of the AU high-level panel's "binding decision" of March 10 and said that Côte d'Ivoire's membership in the AU meant that "the international norms and rulings accepted by national bodies have greater authority over internal laws and decisions." That seems like an exaggeration, but the statement indicates the newfound importance of the authority of African regional organizations.

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  • THOMAS J. BASSETT is Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His most recent book is The Atlas of World Hunger. SCOTT STRAUS is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His most recent book is Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights After Mass Violence.
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