A place for thoughts, pictures, experiences, and more during my year in Taiwan.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Weight of a Weak State in The Ivory Coast

It seems that all the major holidays this year have gone hand in hand with some manner of international crisis. Thanksgiving brought us the North Korean artillery attack near the border, and this Christmas season has given us the rapidly escalating situation in the Ivory Coast. For those of you that don’t know, the Ivory Coast had a long awaited presidential election one month ago. After a very close vote, the opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was ruled the winner by several international mediators. The current president Laurent Gbagbo made accusations of fraud in the still rebel controlled northern province, where most of Mr. Alassane’s supporters are based, and refused to give up power. The result has been a month long standoff between Alassane and his international backers and Gbagbo’s supporters, with many observers fearing a return to civil war. What this crisis serves to highlight however, is that despite the great progress made in West Africa in the past years, many states still suffer from the legacies of post-independence governments and conflicts they spawned.

Like many states in the region, The Ivory Coast gained independence in the early 60’s, and its main nationalist leader Felix Houphou√ęt-Boigny quickly set about uniting the country. Like Kwame Nkrumah in neighboring Ghana, Boigny opted for a one party state. While this was not the ideal choice, the primary concern of leaders at the time was ethnic rallying and the rise of a fractious ethnic based party system. These one party systems of course all too often led to large scale political centralization and eventually authoritarianism. While Boigny’s rule was not nearly as violent or brutal as that of Mobutu in Zaire or Idi Amin in Uganda, it was nonetheless extremely firm, and in political terms highly exclusionary.

The Ivory Coast fell victim to the other symptom of political centralization: a high degree of institutional weakness. While a one party state solves the problem of ethnic rallying it presents two large problems. The first is that it drains state institutions of legitimacy. Things like the legislature and courts soon become seen as a rubber stamp that is all but inseparable from the ruling party. The second is that it lacks the institutional mechanisms for removing unpopular or incompetent leaders or parties, and all too often breeds fearsome opposition that is excluded from the political sphere. With no political recourse in the face of unpopular leadership, the method of choice for opposition groups becomes the military coup. This is what befell Boigny’s appointed successor in 1999, and shortly after we saw the election of current president Laurent Gbagbo in the country’s first really democratic outing since independence. The peace he promised was short lived however, as 2002 saw the breakout of civil war with the largely Muslim north, and the elections that were laid out in the 2005 peace treaty are the ones that just took place last month.

And so it is here that we find ourselves at the present situation. While the leadership is in the public eye, the true crisis is one of a weak state and weak institutions. Democratic mechanisms are not things that can be built overnight, and take time to develop both legitimacy and serious linkage to society itself. Just as the Western style systems created post-independence were largely hollow due to the lack of connection between the colonial states and easily swept aside by powerful leaders, the current regime is suffering from the weak societal links between society and the Boigny regime. For example, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Gbagbo, yet the ruling was dismissed by much of the country because the judicial branch itself lacks the legitimacy to assert itself. State constructs have been all but evacuated of all serious influence with society.

Regardless of how this crisis is resolved, the lesson to take away from it is that many African states need to look not so much at their states’ inner workings, but rather to their foundations. As the US learned so painfully in Iraq these past years, democracy is not something that can just be instituted. Legitimate democratic institutions and serious links between the state and society can only be built with time and effort on the part of the state itself. Whether this generation of African leaders can recognize this, or we once again see states descend into the brutal civil conflict we saw in the 1990’s remains to be seen.

And yes I am fully aware that this is pretty much a politics blog now. So sue me.

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