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African Union

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African Union: The Limits of the Possible

1 January 2011

 African Union: The Limits of the Possible

 By Gwynne Dyer

  “It’s not a bluff,” said an adviser to Alassane Ouattara, the real winner in November’s presidential election in Ivory Coast, who is now besieged in a hotel in Abidjan, the capital, under United Nations protection. “The (African Union) soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks.” But it IS a bluff, and the AU is just undermining its own credibility by threatening to use force.

  The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who stole the Ivory Coast election by getting the Constitutional Council (headed by a crony) to invalidate many of Ouattara’s votes, still controls the capital and the army. His actions have been condemned by the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States and the European Union, but getting him out will not be easy.

  Gbagbo, once a history professor and a pro-democracy campaigner, has latterly turned himself into the self-appointed defender of the Christian peoples in the southern half of Ivory Coast. Now he says: “I do not believe at all in a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue as they have, they will push towards war, confrontation.”

  He knows about civil war, because one broke out two years after he was elected president in 2000. Military mutineers, mostly Muslim troops from the north who didn’t want to be demobilised and lose their jobs, attempted to seize power in Abidjan.

  They were quickly defeated in the capital, but other Muslim troops took control all across the north. French troops blocked them from moving south, and after a couple of months the divided country settled into the sullen cease-fire that has lasted for the past eight years. The civil war that Gbagbo is warning about would be the second round, not the first.

  Then why doesn’t he just accept his electoral defeat and quit? Partly because he just wants to stay in power, of course, but it’s not as simple as that. He has real support among the Christians of the south, because many of them see Alassane Ouattara as the democratic facade of a Muslim takeover bid that began with the military mutiny in 2002.

  The north-south division in Ivory Coast is real. The country has shifted from a narrow Christian majority twenty-five years ago to a Muslim majority today – and it has done so largely through illegal immigration from the much poorer, entirely Muslim countries to the north: Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

  About four million of the 21 million people now living in Ivory Coast are illegal immigrants, and almost all of those immigrants are Muslims. It has changed the electoral balance, because many of them register to vote, especially in the north of the country where they speak the same languages as the local citizens. Southerners are afraid that they will lose control, and so they back Gbagbo.

  It’s really a rich-poor problem, not a Christian-Muslim problem. The country’s agricultural resources, particularly the cocoa plantations that make Ivory Coast the wealthiest country in West Africa, are mainly in the south. Southerners think that a northern-led government would divert a lot of that income to the north, and they are probably right.

  That would only be fair, but southerners also believe that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were allowed to register in the north, and that they all voted for Ouattara. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they believe it. So the November election didn’t solve the Ivorian problem; it exacerbated it.

  The African Union is determined to force Gbagbo to accept the election outcome because it wants to break with the past and make democratic elections the norm in Africa. It has had some recent successes in thwarting military coups, but the situation in Ivory Coast is a lot murkier, and direct intervention by the AU would be a lot harder.

  Armchair generals in the AU and ECOWAS talk boldly of military intervention to drive Gbagbo from power, referencing the successful operations to end civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in recent years. But Ivory Coast is five times bigger and richer than either of those countries, and its army can actually fight.

  Besides, where would the AU and ECOWAS find enough African troops to intervene effectively? Only Nigeria is big enough, but it is most unlikely to commit a lot of troops this year to what might be a real war in Ivory Coast. This is an election year in Nigeria, and body bags coming home as the voters go to the polls are rarely a vote-winner.

  The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Gbagbo’s government, and the Central Bank of West African States has blocked his access to Ivory Coast’s account. These are measures that will work slowly, if at all, but there is no alternative. Starting a war is rarely a good idea. Starting an unwinnable one never is.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…Guinea”)

Ivory Coast: A Tale of Two Countries

12 December 2010

Ivory Coast: A Tale of Two Countries

By Gwynne Dyer

All the foreigners and about half the Ivorians agree that Alassane Ouattara won last month’s presidential election in Ivory Coast – but not the southerners, who say that it was their man, Laurent Gbagbo. So the Election Commission declared Ouattara the winner, and the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner.

It’s been eight years now since Ivory Coast, once the richest country in West Africa, was divided. This election was supposed to end the division, but it has just perpetuated it. Maybe it’s time to accept that Ivory Coast is two countries, not one.

Once the notion of dividing an African country in two was unthinkable. The basic rule of the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was that the former colonial borders must remain inviolable, since if they could be changed there might be a generation of civil wars.

But there was a generation of civil wars anyway – in Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo and Sudan, to mention a few. There are far more ethnic groups in Africa than there are countries: some vie for dominance within the existing borders, while others simply want to secede and form their own countries.

There is also a religious split between mainly Muslim and predominantly Christian regions that extends right across the continent, but the dividing line runs THROUGH a number of countries, not between them. From Ivory Coast in West Africa to Sudan on the Red Sea, the north of every country is Muslim, and the south is Christian.

The ban on division was breaking down even before the OAU was replaced by the African Union in 2002. Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1993 was accepted by the OAU, although the subsequent secession of Somaliland and Puntland from Somalia has not received official blessing. And next month southern Sudan will almost certainly secede from the rest of the country in a referendum overseen by the African Union.

It’s becoming almost commonplace – and maybe Ivory Coast is a suitable case for treatment. It enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity under the rule of its first post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, but since his death in 1993 there has been almost continuous political upheaval. Finally, in 2002, rebel “New Forces” in the army seized control of the Muslim north and split the country.

It has remained split ever since, and there are some 8,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the country. But neither negotiations nor outside pressure have ended the division – and neither have elections.

Reunification was supposed to be achieved by the recent election, which was closely scrutinised by all manner of foreign observers from Africa and beyond. Almost everybody voted on the basis of ethnic and religious loyalties, and the winner was a Muslim northerner, Alassanne Ouattara. He got 54.1 percent of the votes, to 45.9 percent for the incumbent, President Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo is a Christian southerner, and he lost because there are a few hundred thousand more people in the Muslim north of the country. But he did control the Constitutional Court, which promptly declared that hundreds of thousands of northern votes were invalid, either because the voters in question were actually foreigners, or because they simply didn’t exist.

So Ouattara was inaugurated as president at a luxury hotel in Abidjan guarded by United Nations troops, with the blessing of the UN, the African Union, the European Union and the United States. But at the presidential palace, guarded by the Ivorian army, Gbagbo was also sworn in for a new term as president. “We didn’t ask anyone to come and run our country,” said Gbagbo defiantly. “Our sovereignty is something I am going to defend.”

The African Union is trying very hard these days to ensure that electoral results are respected in Africa, so it has suspended Ivory Coast’s membership until Ouattara is actually in power. Since Gbagbo still has the support of the army and controls the state television channel, however, it will be very hard to get him out. Besides, the rights and wrongs of the situation are not as clear-cut as they seem.

Because Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa, was the richest country in West Africa, for decades it received a large flow of immigrants from the poorer countries to the north, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. The immigrants were all Muslims, and their languages were closely related to Dioula, the dominant language of northern Ivory Coast. They were all illegal, of course, but some of them voted anyway.

Ivorian elections have therefore long been troubled by accusations that many voters in the north are not citizens. Even Ouattara himself was banned from running in the 2002 election because his parents, it was alleged, were from Burkina Faso. And it doesn’t matter who is right: southerners will always think they have been cheated if their candidate loses, while northerners will always insist that the vote was legitimate.

The problem has crippled Ivory Coast for almost twenty years, and it will not go away. Mercifully, the killing so far has only been in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands. But if Ivorians can’t resolve the current dispute quickly, it may be time to consider a divorce.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Reunification…Gbagbo”; and “So Ouattara…defend”)

Gaddafi, King of Africa

4 February 2009

Gaddafi, King of Africa

 By Gwynne Dyer

How could they tell him no? Muammar Gaddafi, resplendent in the gold brocade robes that he probably made from his mother’s curtains and wearing his usual bug-eye sunglasses, was urging all the other African leaders to join him in creating the United States of Africa. The world’s oldest teenager had just been made chairman of the African Union, and this was his Big Idea.

The African presidents and prime ministers heard him out patiently– which took some time, for Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for the past forty years, is used to people hearing him out patiently at quite some length. If they are Libyans, they then say “Yes, sir. Excellent idea,” so his expectations in this department have also grown over the years.

The other African leaders were not going to say that, and indeed some of them had been reluctant to let Gaddafi become the head of the African Union. It was North Africa’s turn this year, so it was awkward to say no, but on the other hand Gaddafi is so eccentric and downright bizarre….

Last August, for example, he invited some 200 traditional kings, princes, sultans, sheikhs and chiefs from all over Africa to come to Libya.

Most of these tribal leaders are not wealthy men, and joining his “forum of traditional leaders” meant free trips and lots of gifts, so they came to Benghazi — and dutifully declared that Gaddafi was Africa’s “king of kings.” His usual egomania, certainly, but Gaddafi (who wore the purple curtains on that occasion) was also trying to build support for his “United States of Africa” project.

Few of the other African Union leaders who met in Addis Ababa last week approve of Gaddafi’s forum of traditional rulers or think that a “United States of Africa” is a good idea. (Uganda even banned a meeting of Gaddafi’s forum last year, on the grounds that unelected “leaders” should not claim a political role.) But in the end, despite all their misgivings, Gaddafi got the job of AU chair anyway.

Once in the chair, Gaddafi lived up to his reputation: the summit went into an unscheduled fourth day because he simply would not stop haranguing the other leaders about the “United States of Africa.” They tried to escape by setting up a committee to consider the idea and report back in three months, but he wasn’t so easily diverted.

At the final evening’s session, Gaddafi rambled on for hours about his great idea. It was well after midnight when Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni walked over to him and whispered in his ear that it was past everybody else’s bedtime. As they departed, Gaddafi remarked that “silence gives consent” — so unless they openly oppose him at the next summit, the United States of Africa will then automatically come into existence.

It won’t. The African Union works by consensus, and almost all of its 53 presidents and prime ministers think the US of A is a terrible idea.

Cynics might say that’s just because their own jobs would vanish in an Africa with a single army, a single currency and a single passport. But the men and women in that room probably had close to a thousand years of political experience as African leaders between them, and they were not all cynics.

Gaddafi obviously sees himself as the first president of the United States of Africa. He has always felt that Libya is too small a stage for his talents, and once his early attempts to become the leader of the Arab world failed, he turned his attention to Africa instead. But that’s only his private ambition, and the other AU leaders don’t have to make him the president of the US of A. What’s wrong with the idea in principle?

It was Gaddafi himself who pointed to the fundamental problem when he said, at the same summit, that Africa is essentially tribal. Multi-party democracy leads to bloodshed because the parties get tribalised, Gaddafi explained, and therefore the right model for Africa is his own country, Libya, where there are no parties and no elections.

It’s a crude formulation of the problem, but he’s right that Africa’s biggest problem is too many small ethnic groups and few big ones.

Almost every country is a mosaic of rival ethnic groups. The political turmoil that has caused is probably the main reason why African countries, most of which were richer than comparable Asian countries in the same empire when they got their independence forty or fifty years ago, are now far poorer.

One African friend long ago suggested to me that the only solution was a pan-African dictator, a Stalin who would kill off all the ethnic demagogues and unify the continent under a single “African” identity. But even Stalin did not succeed, as the Chechens, the Ukrainians, the Georgians and dozens of other post-Soviet ethnic groups demonstrate.

The alternative approach, which is to build a national identity slowly while trying to maintain a non-tribalised democracy, is hard work, but it kills fewer people and it can succeed in the end. The model for the African Union is the European Union, a relatively loose association of democracies with long separate histories, not the United States of America with its single shared identity. It is probably the right model.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Once…diverted”; and


Zimbabwe: The Nature of Power

4 April 2008

Zimbabwe: The Nature of Power

 By Gwynne Dyer

It has been a vivid demonstration of how power really works. A week ago, Robert Mugabe was still the undisputed ruler of Zimbabwe. He was 84, and he had reduced the country to ruin: four out of five adults are unemployed, inflation is running (officially) at over 100,000 percent, and one-third of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa. Yet nobody in his own party, Zanu-PF, dared to question his rule, the police and the army remained loyal, and ordinary people lived in quiet desperation.

The silent submission of the population owed a good deal to the brutality of the police, but what can explain the loyalty of his own colleagues in the party and the army? After all, Zimbabwe is their country, too, and nobody likes to see their homeland dragged in the dirt. Moreover, it was all Mugabe’s fault, brought about by policies that he freely chose to pursue. He is not ten feet tall and he has no magical powers. Why did they obey him?

They obeyed him because he has been in power for 28 years, longer than the great majority of Zimbabweans have been alive. (The average Zimbabwean woman is dead at 34, the lowest life expectancy in the world. Men make it to 37.) They obeyed him because he was the hero of the independence struggle and an icon of African liberation.

Most of all, they obeyed him because his rule was apparently the only thing that kept them out of the desperate poverty in which most Zimbabweans live. Powerful people who defied him were rarely killed, but they were cut off from the flow of wealth and had a very hard time of it. So the regime cruised on almost unaffected by the ruin of the country, and Mugabe even felt secure enough to allow more or less free elections on 29 March.

He had been under heavy pressure by the African Union to clean up his act, since Zimbabwe has become a profound embarrassment to better-run African states, and in particular to neighbouring South Africa. The farther away the potential investors are, the harder they find it to tell the difference between one African country and another, and Zimbabwe’s bad reputation was hurting the whole region. So Mugabe made what seemed to be a harmless concession.

Typically, in Zimbabwean elections, the cities vote against Mugabe, but the countryside, where 75 percent of the people live, votes for him. At least, it seems to. Rural people are more easily intimidated, opposition observers can easily be chased away from isolated rural polling stations, and many things can happen to the ballot boxes on the way to Harare to be counted.

Mugabe was so confident that he didn’t even send out Zanu-PF’s storm-troopers, the so-called “war veterans” (most of whom were not born during the liberation war), to frighten people into voting the right way. But he had made one crucial miscalculation: in response to pressure from the African Union, he agreed to let the vote be counted locally, with the results posted up outside each polling station.

So the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC, sent members to photograph the results at more than 8,000 polling stations, and it suddenly got very hard to manipulate the returns at a central location. And it turned out — maybe it had been true at every previous election, too — that around half the population had not voted for Zanu-PF despite all the pressures.

Mugabe’s party has already lost its majority in parliament, but the real transformation has been in Zanu-PF itself. Suddenly, the “old man” is not the object of fear and adulation any more. In the eyes of some senior party people and their military and police colleagues, Mugabe has become a bargaining counter.

If the jig is really up, maybe they could trade Mugabe and power for a peaceful retirement with no awkward questions about where their wealth came from. Of course, Mugabe would also have to be allowed an honourable retirement himself — but as one of the last heroes of Africa’s independence generation, he was guaranteed that anyway.

Or maybe they should declare martial law, annul the election and push Mugabe aside — or leave him out front as a figurehead and flak-catcher. He must be very disconcerted, after 28 years of absolute power, to discover that it was just a confidence trick all along.

But the game is not over yet. While both those options remain open, the party elders and the security forces have opted for the moment to play more or less by the rules: a run-off election in two weeks between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

That gives them time to deploy the bully-boys, re-intimidate the rural population, and pull off a second-round victory for Mugabe. Or, if that strategy doesn’t look like it’s going to work (for once people have lost their fear, it’s much harder to get them back in the mood), then they still have time to exercise Option A or Option B.

So what has this episode taught us about the nature of power? That the more absolute and illegitimate it is, the easier it is for it to dissolve overnight. And that democracy is a good solvent.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“He had…counted”)