Mahmood Mamdani: The UN failed in Cote d’Ivoire

Ivory Coast is a divided society. The outsized egos of its presidential candidates were fed by a real social crisis that divided the country into a regional civil war. No one familiar with the country’s unfolding crisis should have been surprised by the ruling party’s refusal to accept the verdict in a ‘winner-takes-all’ election.  Africa had already witnessed similar refusals in other countries, notable Zimbabwe and Kenya.

The notable thing is the refusal by those who pressed the solution in the Ivorian case to heed the lessons of a similar crisis in Africa. When it came to Zimbabwe and Kenya, power-sharing arrangements were put in place, with a helping hand from SADC in Zimbabwe and the UN in Kenya. The objective in both cases was to avert a full-blown crisis.

In the Ivory Coast, however, the UN insisted on an election, and a regime change in line with its results. When the election led to a political stalemate, the UN, a body set up to strengthen peace-keeping, came in with guns blazing to force a military implementation of its preferred solution.

In the words of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, the Ghanian analyst I quoted earlier, Cote d’Ivoire was “an avoidable disaster.” The price of that disaster will surely be paid by the people of Ivory Coast in the years to come.

Full article in Al-Jazeera.

Many excellent pood points are made. A conflict probably could have been avoided–at least for the moment. But things I found dissatisfying about the analysis:

If you didn’t know much about Cote d’Ivoire, you could be forgiven for thinking that the UN foisted elections on the nation, and started and won the subsequent conflict. Outside influence is strong, but this is not a nation that complacently follows the orders of an international agency. Nor is local politics solely driven by the egos of Presidential contenders. Mamdani–one of my favorite political scientists–is usually the last person to make such omissions, and I’m surprised to see this line of attack.

Mamdani also holds up power-sharing as a means to avoid crisis. But crisis in what space of time? What one wants is a political equilibrium stable in the long term. I’m less confident that the power-sharing route is a successful one–in terms of either growth or stability. I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, and (as readers will get tired of hearing) I get frustrated when I see solutions presented simply.

Mamdani also looks at Cote d’Ivoire in isolation. Or rather, he takes lessons from the past, from elsewhere in Africa, and omits the lessons that Cote d’Ivoire will impart to the future. Kenya and Zimbabwe are powerful precedents precisely because nations in the region look to these examples in times of political crisis. So, for the hundreds of elections yet to come in Africa, what message do you want to send to incumbents or opposition rulers who lose the poll: stand and fight for a power sharing agreement, or accept the outcome?

Finally, at what price democracy? If the 2010-11 violence was the only life lost for legitimate future elections, Cote d’Ivoire could count itself among history’s least bloody democratic transitions. I think Mamdani’s point is that this will not be the last blood shed. He is probably right. But the historian and the economist alike ought to ask: what is the counterfactual? Fewer deaths? Less uncertainty? Lower poverty? Lesser oppression? Personally, I think not. But that is just a guess. And what I would have liked to see is the counterargument.