Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme

The power struggle over the recent presidential election results in Côte d'Ivoire is worrying. There has been a political stand-off since the Independent Electoral Commission gave opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, victory with 54.1% against 44.9% for the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo supporters encouraged the Constitutional Council to rapidly overturn results in the north and Mr Gbagbo did not wait for the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) to endorse the results, as required under the Ouagadougou Peace Accords. Instead, he rushed through a rapid inauguration, as has Mr Ouattara who has also announced he is president.

This political crisis is the latest chapter since civil war erupted in 2002 and split the country. From 2005-2007, I led a team of UN sanctions inspectors, ensuring that both northern rebels, the Forces Nouvelles and Gbagbo's forces did not rearm and were accountable to the UN arms and diamond embargoes and that targeted measures were observed. These efforts helped calm the situation. In 2007, a deal mediated by neighbouring Burkina Faso and approved by the African Union, stipulated fresh elections, although these were several times delayed. Finally, two election rounds took place in 2010, with a run-off on 28 November.

One promising aspect of this crisis is the leadership of emerging African institutions. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) have suspended Côte d'Ivoire and threatened sanctions when in the past they might have responded weakly to what amounts to a constitutional coup by Gbagbo and his supporters.

This assertion of African leadership reflects a growing role for regional bodies and compares favourably to the weakening and fractious UN Security Council.

On 8 December, Russia blocked a UN Security Council statement that backed Ouattara as the winner of the presidential election. But following the AU and ECOWAS statements recognizing Ouattara, Russia compromised and permitted a statement welcoming the AU and ECOWAS declarations. China had quickly issued its own statement, saying: 'China will continue to support efforts made by African regional organizations and African countries to ease tension in Côte d'Ivoire.' Russia had questioned whether the UN was overstepping its mandate by declaring an election winner.

Mounting pressure from the region and the international community on Mr Gbagbo has seen his supporters reach out to Ouattara for talks. This crisis is not yet over, but the threat of African and UN sanctions on spoilers can focus minds. In 2006, sanctions cooled things down surprisingly well, and helped prepare the ground for negotiations.

Laurent Gbagbo and some of his key advisers should be warned that they might face a travel ban and assets freeze if they fail to concede the presidency. Ouattara has already offered to form an inclusive government, bringing in Gbagbo supporters. The AU mediator, former President Thabo Mbeki can facilitate this process. The 2007 Ouagadougou Peace accords show that the solution to the Ivoire crisis lies in the region. The UN, France and the international community beyond Africa need to tread carefully, and support the increasingly assertive and capable states of the AU and ECOWAS in resolving this crisis.

Further resources

Crucial Tests for Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire in Forthcoming Elections
Expert Comment, Paul Melly, 21 October 2010