Democracy on the brink in Ivory Coast

In West Africa, Ivory Coast is moving towards civil war after a disputed election. What happens there will be an omen for the fate of democracy across the troubled continent.

A night of fierce fighting left 30,000 refugees trapped in a church complex in Ivory Coast, as northern rebels captured two important towns from government forces. The successful attack marks a major victory in a rapidly escalating civil war.

While the crises in Libya and Japan have hogged the headlines, an election dispute in Ivory Coast has been turning increasingly violent. On one side is Laurent Gbagbo, who has ruled for a decade. He is still in power despite the fact that his legal term of office ended in 2005.

On the other side is Alassane Ouattara, a veteran politician who – according to international observers – legitimately won elections which were finally held last year. Gbagbo has refused to recognise the election results and is not stepping down, despite widespread condemnation.

Ouattara's supporters gathered in the capital, Abidjan, to demand that the election result be honoured. In response, Gbagbo unleashed his thugs, beating up demonstrators and firing machine guns into peaceful crowds. Hundreds of civilians have been killed.

In Africa, where democracy is often fragile, this kind of story is sadly familiar. The continent has suffered too long under leaders who rig elections, intimidate voters or simply ban opposition parties. Only nine of 48 African countries were rated 'fully free' in a survey of African democracy in 2010.

Why is democracy so rare in Africa? There are many reasons, but the biggest is the legacy of colonialism. Until the 1960s, most of Africa was ruled by European countries. When they left, they left fast, often without due care for what would follow.

Without a history of democracy, and without strong civil institutions like unions or a free press, newly independent countries fell under the rule of dictators. Only gradually did democracies begin to emerge, and even then many suffered from corruption and poor leadership.

By 2009, two thirds of African countries were rated at least 'partially free', but the most recent reports say the continent has since moved away from democracy and towards dictatorship again.

Africa's future
This gives the situation in Ivory Coast huge significance. Gbagbo is trying to ignore democratic elections, and use force to establish dictatorial rule. He has faced sanctions, but the response from the African Union – representing African countries – has been indecisive.

Across the continent, authoritarian rulers are watching with interest. If Gbagbo can hold power at the point of a gun, perhaps they can do the same.

You Decide

  1. 'Democracy is the solution to all Africa's problems.' True or false?
  2. What should the international community do in situations like that in Ivory Coast? Should we be involved at all?


  1. What are the best conditions for democracy to flourish? Discuss with your class and draw up a list.
  2. Choose an African country – perhaps one you have a personal connection with – and prepare a report on its history and political situation. As a class, you could use your combined reports for an assembly.

Some People Say...

“Democracy in Africa is doomed to fail.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who are these rebels who are supporting Ouattara?
They come from the north of Ivory Coast, a mainly Muslim region which has been ruled separately since a civil war in 2002. They support Ouattara, who comes from the region, but it's not clear that he controls them in any meaningful way.
So this is about religion as well as democracy?
Yes. A huge problem for Ivory Coast is that the country holds two very different population groups. Neither group wants to see the other in control. It's a common problem in Africa.
Why's that?
Colonial rulers often drew borders depending on how much land they could hold, not on how the native peoples naturally divided. Part of the colonial legacy is countries that are torn between warring tribes and religions. Making stable democracies under such conditions is a major challenge.


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