Ivory Coast: Sovereignty and the Price of Chocolate

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A shorter post this time – New Year present to my friend Ahmed who travels regularly from Alexandria, Virginia to Alexandria, Egypt; if only to confirm the obvious realities of globalization and to prove Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the world is indeed flat and crowded, even if not so hot this particular December.

It has been almost a month since the elections in Ivory Coast produced not one – but two presidents – one sworn in ceremoniously, wrapped in a regal sash, gushing in front of cameras at the presidential palace – the other hunkered down at the Golf Hotel where he took the wise precaution to retreat days before the election, just in case his adversary was to get any bright ideas. The French press is calling the latter, President of the Republic of the Golf Hotel on account of not been able to emerge since the results were declared that first week of December. The only thing standing between him and the army are 800 U.N. peacekeepers; each force behind their respective barricades allowing no one in or out, leaving no choice but to airlift food and provisions, not to mention a healthy supply of chocolate for the crepe stand in the lobby of the hotel where the grounds have been transformed into makeshift ministries and cabinet offices.

As incumbent President Gbagbo clings to power in Abidjan with the help of the army and state media, President elect Ouattara continues to consolidate his gains in the international community. The U.S and the French were among the first to recognize him followed by the European Union, the United Nations and the West African economic block – ECOWAS. The IMF and World Bank have withdrawn support and the EU has placed travel restrictions as well as targeted sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo and close circle hoping to make a dent perhaps by denying his two wives and entourage their regular shopping sprees in the left bank boutiques of Paris. Just last week as a final show of no confidence the General Assembly voted 192-0 recognizing Mr. Ouattara as the rightful head of the Ivorian state and sent the resident ambassadorial mission of Mr. Gbagbo packing. They left in a huff, taking all the computer and office equipment as consolation prize. Things can be so simple when states have fields of cocoa instead of oil.

Looking for other means of practical resistance, the West African Central Bank has ceded control of the state funds to Mr. Ouattara in an effort to choke the life line of President Gbagbo who will soon be running on fumes if he does not play ball – preferably in someone else’s country. It will be interesting to see how loyal his ethnically stacked army will be once he runs out of money. History is full of lessons on the urgent merits of keeping armed young men well paid and well fed.

In further attempts to isolate Mr. Gbagbo, the African Union has suspended his membership and regional allies are now considering use of “legitimate force” to remove him. That sounds a lot like military intervention to me.

Some of my African friends shake their heads in disgust and say “pitoyable!” — lamenting the crisis as yet another example of Big Man politics, typical of the sad state of democracy on a continent that has given us the likes of Taylor, Bashir, Bongo and Mobutu. Others – echoing the nationalist refrains of Mr. Gbagbo are denouncing the impasse as yet another proof of foreign meddling in what they see as a sovereign matter. The U.N., the French and all the rest of them should get out, they say — Ivorian solutions for Ivorian problems. How convenient in this case, to be the ones picking and choosing who is a true Ivorian? Moreover; what exactly is it to be “sovereign” if not upheld by peer member states, or mandated by your citizens, half of whom were disqualified in this case.

All this talk of intervention raises the question: in an increasingly global and interdependent world where actions have far reaching consequences often implicating those who had no part in the decisions with enormous financial and social burden, and where world bodies are tasked to pick up the pieces, is the sovereign nation destined to become a relic of the past, to be relegated to text books along with medieval walled cities and moat floating feudal states?

For the world’s largest cocoa producer, accounting for 40% of global supply, if you think that the price of chocolate is the only thing to consider, think again.

In the past month UNHCR has logged almost 20,000 refugees, mostly women and children fleeing the crisis to neighboring Liberia – itself a fragile state newly emerging from conflict and struggling to consolidate its peace dividends. Youth militia loyal to Gbagbo are mobilizing and if the nightly raids, abductions and torture in the opposition neighborhoods of Abidjan are any indication, the country could relapse into large scale violence with considerable human and economic costs spilling into the whole region which relies on this country’s commercial port. Fear of a $30 million interest default has already made the international bond markets jittery.

The last century witnessed the creation of global institutions — the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization and the many UN agencies; all supra-national institutions with global mandates, yet subject to sovereign whims of national or personal interests. Consequently — Omar Bashir remains free in spite of the ICC indictments; the West Bank is fast becoming an Israeli colony in spite of the ICJ rulings; the West continues to push for agricultural subsidies that favor their own to the detriment of the poorer nations; and the U.N. in spite of the billions it spends in peacekeeping remains handcuffed by the narrow mandate it is given after the big five settle on the lowest common denominator on the security council.

And yet the stakes are higher than ever as the world is shrinking tighter. Forget the price of chocolate and consider the global financial Tsunami unleashed by the Sub Prime defaults and financial deregulation in the U.S – events that may not have come to pass had international institutions had a vote in the matter.

Better yet — Bush Junior may not have been given a carte blanche, averting two disastrous terms and two costly wars that effectively defeated the empire better than Bin Laden could have ever in his wildest dreams imagined. Palestinians might have had their state long ago; Bashir, Blair and Cheney would be behind bars and eastern Congo would have been taken into receivership by international trustees long ago under the principles of Responsibility to Protect.

So, as the world connects tighter in a knot, sovereignty may be the last sacred cow offered at the altar of the juggernaut of globalization once it is clear that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. In the meantime – as we witness our first test case in challenging sovereign identity in Ivory Coast — for now we may have to settle for cheese instead of chocolate.

Cote D’Ivoire 2010: a tale of two presidents

Gbagbo!

Three continents, two connections and one day later I finally land at the Abidjan International Airport as an International Observer for the second round of presidential elections between the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and opposition leader Alessane Ouattara – elections designed to end the decade long civil unrest which effectively split the country over questions of ethnic identity and voting rights. That’s the short version.

The chaos and humidity feels instantly liberating in spite of the disorienting cross continental shifts in time zones and culture. Bold campaign ads run along the sweeping bridges connecting this sprawling coastal city once known as the Paris of Africa, highlighting the political stakes.

A large billboard of a woman in her thirties with a troubled face and only one arm comes into view over and over again as we round the beautiful lagoon and the lush vegetation that sets off the modern skyline in the distance. It says she is a war victim and the caption reads: “Between my baby and my arm, I chose my baby. For Peace I choose Gbagbo” – somewhat manipulative but I get the point.

Ouattara is an economist and ex-Africa Director of the IMF, rallying under a Houphouëtist alliance to evoke the post-independence days of plenty under President Houphouët-Boigny. His main liability is to be born to a Burkinabe mother therefore of questionable Ivorian identity; a point conveniently manipulated by political adversaries to infuse mistrust and create alliances where tribal networks often take the place of democratic institutions and ethnic cleavages are exploited for mobility.

Mathias, my Observation team mate is also from Burkina Faso — laid back, familiar and completely unperturbed by time and protocol, appearing and disappearing as he pleases, making calls in the middle of meetings where the sandal wearing attendees talk over the continuous ring of their own mobiles and calmly ignore the squeaky doors that keep opening and closing.

He chit chats freely and flirts randomly as a matter of sport. He says all Burkinabe’s are like that. Friendly. For the most part it generates a few giggles from the ladies and brings an easy flow to our otherwise rigorous and packed schedule. I wonder if his nationality could pose a problem considering his country is viewed by some as a French proxy supporting Ouattara.

A few nights before the elections I watched a televised debate between the two candidates moderated by a character best described as a cross between Felix the Cat and Larry King in terms of his unusually large head on a small upper body. The incumbent desperately struggled to distance himself from the last decade of violence and economic hardships promising new beginnings; a transformation of national industry of largely cocoa and coffee production, combined with a strong focus on social programs.

Ouattara in contrast presented himself as a modern man; one who is running on a liberal platform bolstered by massive help from the IMF and increased foreign investment. One does not need to be an expert to pick the candidate of choice for the West, but Gbagbo passed up the opportunity to point out his counterpart as a potential agent for further debt and possible foreign influence, instead focusing on Ouatarra’s part in the conflict. Remarkably, the Larry King character resisted any attempt to sensationalize, showing more elegance than his American counterpart — a reminder that the commercial synergies of news and entertainment have yet to be discovered in Africa.

The pre-elections atmosphere is one of intense mistrust, at times bordering on paranoia. Stories circulate that the pens provided at the polling stations are rigged with disappearing ink, effacing the votes for your candidate. How the pen determines where the voter crosses seems irrelevant. After all, Africa is the land of myth and magic where fetishes are omnipresent, ancient tribal chiefs are more important than corporations who would bank roll their favorite candidates; and rebels and machetes are part of the political process.
As we interview the officials at the Local Commission about the elaborate cross check procedures for the final results, the lady president of the center arrives breathless in her long ruffled skirt, whisks us away into her private office and informs us she is being chased by opposition partisans.

“They blocked me at the airport,” she lays out all three of her cells phones, takes out a white handkerchief and delicately dabs the sweat around her neck and chocolate décolleté; “They confiscated the staff salaries I had in the pouch and threatened me with bodily harm.”
“They. who?” Asks Mathias.
“They! The militants. The youth!” Her gold bracelets jingle as she talks.
“How many were they?” I scribble away.
“Beaucoup. Beaucoup.”
“A lot?! Like how many? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She waves away the heat and a couple of mosquitoes. “A lot!” She says with a definitive nod.
“Liar!” Mathias mumbles under his breath as we leave. “What was she doing at the airport with all that money anyway?”

Another official says he has information from a very credible source that one agent in every voting station has been bribed one thousand dollars a day to change the results.

“Who is this source?”
“Well. Madame. I can not say.” He leans back in his plastic chair and smiles cryptically, revealing the yellow buildup of years of bad hygiene around the margins of his teeth that matches the color of the sunflowers on his shirt. “But he is very reliable.”
“Ah oui?” Asks Mathias

Anticipation steadily builds. Candidates and their respective spokesmen issue press releases pretending a veneer of calm, each magnanimously promising to uphold the final results, more likely signaling how the other should behave when he loses. Meanwhile, Mr. Ouatarra and entourage have taken over one wing at my hotel. He startles me as he says “bonsoir Madame,” and passes by in the hallway, then disappears among the guards and the blue helmets. Like any high class hotel de luxe in Africa, The Golf doubles as an opposition hideout and evacuation center on account of its convenient location by the lagoon and coveted helipad. After all, last time there was political unrest Mr. Outattara’s house was burnt down.

One more thing. As a last minute tactic, Mr. Gbagbo declares a curfew in spite of the pleas of the U.N., who rightly insists it would further complicate the logistics. Many wonder whether this is an attempt to short circuit the turnout since the security instruments who would enforce the curfew are also Gbagbo loyalists. What is certain is that the combination of transportation challenges, mistrust and the elaborate manual tabulations means only one thing – delays.

Predictably, on Election Day polls open late. Mathias and I walk past the long lines of voters growing under the large canopies of the avocado trees outside a primary school turned polling station. We sit staring at the sealed box of ballots which is to be opened only in front of the party representatives. They finally arrive after 45 minutes. “Curfew. Taxi problems;” they say sheepishly and squeeze behind their tiny wooden desks.

The polling finally starts: Stickers — registration list – ballots — signature — indelible ink – stamp – all ok.

As the sun rises up in the sky to smolder and burn off the shadows throughout the day, the steady stream of voters mark their candidate of choice in the cardboard isolation booth that stands in a corner. Many come prepared with their own pens and find their suspicions confirmed when Mathias repeatedly tries to talk them into using the “official” ones in the stations. “He is only teasing.” I would smile and say.

As we randomly pick stations, observe the day and mark the scores, we appreciate the depth of the economic crisis in the neglected residential neighborhoods and feel the frustration of those who want to put the last ten years behind them and to once again shine as the star of West Africa. We discuss nuances of identity; listen to the indignant few who claim they have identified neighbors of “questionable” origin and counter with stories of our own to demonstrate that identities do not have to be static if you keep an open mind and extend justice throughout society. At the end, it is the umbrella of the economic system that needs to include and align the interests. Regardless of who wins, it is incumbent upon him to hold out his hand to the vanquished, who must in turn negotiate the limits of his love for his country.

As the polls finally close and the ballot box seals are cut, a heavy set woman in long flowy purple-wear is chosen at our station to read the results. The observers, representatives and agents all take their places as she opens each ballot, patiently reading and holding up the name for all to see. A young girl marks the results in plain view on the blackboard. I don’t see how the supposed undercover agent we were tipped off about by the “credible” informant, could possibly earn his $1,000 keep. If the party representatives moved up any further in their chairs, they would surely keel over.

Gbagbo Laurent……Gbagbo Laurent…..Alessane Ouattara….The girl at the blackboard makes neat little rows of squares and strikes them through in batches of five.

Gbagbo Laurent…..A cell phone ring with a festive African beat breaks the intensity of the room. The purple lady puts down the ballot and waddles over calmly, reaching into her purse.

“Aaaah?”

The various agents, all four party representatives and the two of us hold our positions and wait in silence. What sounds like a single gunshot in the distance momentarily distracts us. We all throw a quizzical glance at each other, shrug and once again fix our gazes back on the lady who is still on the phone.

“I will be late,” she says. “No, I can’t. I am counting votes now.”
She hangs up and waddles back unhurried. No excuses. No sign of impatience from anyone. She picks up where she left off.

Gbagbo Laurent…..more squares continue to fill the rows underneath the two names before the same party music once again breaks our concentration. This time the chief of the bureau gets up and brings over the happy bag. The lady opens it and reaches in elbow deep to produce the bouncing contraption.

“Alo!”
Once again everyone freezes like an old children’s game.
This time she switches into dialect but I understand the word pommes-de-terre; something about potatoes.

“….and the charcoal is where it always is – look in the green basket.”
“You’ve made us all hungry now,” says Mathias as she hangs up.

Everything is relative and urgencies take on a different form depending on the context. Maybe we, in the West could use a little serving of “pomme-de-terre” here and there within our serious institutions.

The little squares rapidly fill up on Gbagbo’s side of the blackboard. But this is Abidjan — the loyalists’ stronghold. The North is sure to be a different story judging by the first round, why else would they need to send reinforcements to “secure” the area.

The lobby at the Golf Hotel is filling up by the hour. All flights have been cancelled and the curfew continues. The results should have been declared, first by last night – then by this morning and now planned again for later release at midnight no doubt for maximum control. Gbagbo is already contesting the results calling foul play in some of the regions and earlier this morning one of his supporters snatched the ballot results in plain view of the cameras as the officials prepared to make an announcement.

A large man is twirling a carved wooden figurine with tresses that swing back and forth every time he rolls it between his palms. He says it is to awaken the powers.

Mr. Ouattara’s spokesman sits at the adjacent table. As one of the main figures of the party walks into the lobby, he is swallowed whole by a circle of journalists and cameras who scramble for a statement. I make my way over and squeeze through.

“I proclaim Mr. Ouattara, the President of the Republic of Ivory Coast.” He says the results leave no doubt. Mr. Gbagbo is contesting the results of four regions in the North, “These regions went to Mr. Ouattara on the first round. We have worked ten years for this moment. It is time for Mr. Gbagbo to leave.”

Gbagbo!

This morning I wake up to two sets of official results.

Independent Electoral Commission:
Gbagbo – 45.9%
Outattara – 54.10%

Constitutional Council:
Gbagbo – 51.45%
Ouattara – 48.55%

Gbagbo is refusing to concede. The head of the Constitutional Council, close to Gbagbo and contrary to the results of the Independent Elections Commission has sided with him, voiding the polls from all the contentious regions in the north. They say it is good to have friends in high places. Gendarmes have broken into the opposition’s headquarters and killed some of the members. Angry riots are breaking out.

As the international community, Obama and Sarkozy extend their congratulations to Ouattara, Gbagbo is asking the United Nations to leave and denounces foreign intrigue behind the support for his rival.

Both men are sworn in as Presidents. So much for reconciliation.

Power is intoxicating – painful to relinquish. For all the patriotic sermons that politicians deliver for public consumption whether in Washington, Tehran or Abidjan, love of country is a worthless currency stamped with the face of its people, bartered and manipulated for a far more tangible asset.

Hold off on making those travel arrangements for the Paris of Africa. The shining star is having electrical problems.