How do you oust a president who, with the military at his side, refuses to leave office after losing an election? With Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo doing just that, the continent's increasingly energetic multilateral bodies are determined to step in and defuse the violence that has already claimed at least 173 lives. The African Union and other continental bodies are showing admirable leadership in pushing for Gbagbo to step down peacefully. But their efforts in Côte d'Ivoire, though clearly intended to protect peace and democracy, may end up repeating past failures. AU intervention has resolved similar disputes in Kenya and Zimbabwe, but the compromises there may have actually made the ongoing Côte d'Ivoire dispute, and future such African political crises, more likely. Gbagbo's hold over Côte d'Ivoire, which has no clear solution, suggests that the AU may have no choice but to consider a more pro-active approach to African democracy.
This has happened before. A disputed 2007 presidential election in Kenya, in which both the incumbent and challenger declared victory, led to three months of violent unrest and mass protest until the AU brokered a power-sharing agreement that kept the president in office and appointed challenger Raila Odinga as Prime Minister. The AU followed the same strategy in Zimbabwe the following year, when President Robert Mugabe "won" reelection with a campaign of violence, terror, and fraud. While this compromise ended the violence, it did little for democracy: two years after agreeing to share power with his challenger, Mugabe is poised to reclaim his iron grip on Zimbabwe.
It's hardly democracy, but it's not clear that the AU has any better choices in Côte d'Ivoire. Although Kenya's Odinga has called for Gbagbo to be removed by force, no doubt bitter about his own experiences with power sharing, he has dropped such rhetoric since the AU appointed him lead representative for the Côte d'Ivoire crisis. Because Gbagbo has the loyalty of much of the military, any AU invasion of Côte d'Ivoire would risk civil or even regional war. Even if Gbagbo were removed, partisans could terrorize West Africa for years. Gbagbo won't step down, and if the Economic Community of West African States' (ECOWAS) threat of economic sanctions can't cleave him from his military loyalists, allowing him to remain under a power-sharing compromise is the only real option for the AU.
So while the AU and its junior bodies halted Kenya and Zimbabwe from spiraling out of control, they have sent an unintentional but clear signal to presidents across Sub-Saharan Africa: if you lose reelection, even amid fraud and violence, you don't have to step down. As long as the military is loyal to you, simply threaten violence and your fellow African heads of state will let you stay on under the guise of "national unity" and "power sharing." Gbagbo has no structural incentive to step down, and neither will future election-winning incumbents.
Côte d'Ivoire's hard lesson for African leaders is that intervening in political crises after they happen doesn't work. It's too easy for corrupt leaders to play the system, and emergency compromises that are good in isolation can end up building incentives for bad behavior. The AU will have to prevent the next Côte d'Ivoire before it happens. That means fixing the problems that allow Africa's Gbagbos and Mugabes to cling to power: weak judiciaries, too much presidential control over the military, and the corruption that fuels them both. Fortunately, Africa's mulitlateral bodies have shown a clear willingness to intervene in the continent's national affairs.
The strong, swift efforts by the AU and ECOWAS to peacefully remove Gbagbo from power show that African leaders are seriously committed to furthering good governance and protecting democracy. But their strategy of reactive democratization has not worked. If the continent's mulitlateral bodies directed their energies toward democracy building in countries before they dissolved into violence, such crises could be averted. It's no simple thing for a continental collective to tell a member state to restructure its government or to allow greater transparency, but there is precedent in the European Union. The EU has used economic incentives to push post-war Balkan nations, for example, to rapidly modernize their state institutions and to enforce rule-of-law.
A functioning democracy has too many moving parts to fix on-the-fly. It requires constant maintenance and even the occasional overhaul to keep it working. If the African Union wants to prevent another ugly compromise like the ones it made in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and will probably have to make again in Côte d'Ivoire, the AU will have to take the lead in maintaining good African governance.
Image: Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo talks with with African Union chief Jean Ping at an summit this May. More recently, Ping has traveled to Côte d'Ivoire to try and resolve the ongoing political crisis there. By Sai Kambou/AFP/Getty.