It has been seven weeks since the disputed Ivory Coast election. Seven weeks since supporters of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo physically restrained an electoral commission spokesman from announcing poll results on live television — literally tearing up his speech before the cameras. Seven weeks since the opposition cabinet took shelter in a luxury hotel under armed protection from UN soldiers. After seven weeks the crisis still has no end in sight.

Ivory Coast now has two governments. Gbagbo retains control of most of the county and the crucial support of the military. His rival, President Alhassane Ouattara has the support of the UN and international community as well as the moral authority gained by receiving a majority of the popular vote. Neither party seems ready to blink.

As regional and international leaders struggle desperately to broker a peace deal and the humanitarian situation becomes more and more tenuous, it is hard not to see the Ivory Coast crisis as a test for wider African democracy.  Between now and April there are national elections scheduled in Central African Republic, Niger, Uganda, Chad, Benin, Djibouti  and regional powerhouse Nigeria.  Political figures in all these countries will have been watching the situation in Ivory Coast with interest.

This week key negotiations between Gbagbo and Ouattra will be led by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The solution he will almost certainly propose — and Ouattra at least has already rejected — is a power sharing government with the two leaders assuming the roles of President and Prime Minister in a unity cabinet. It is a telling sign that it is Odinga making the overture — he himself is Prime Minister under a similar agreement brokered after Kenya’s disputed 2007 election.

This power sharing model has also been used in Zimbabwe where President Mugabe refused to concede after a highly dubious recount in the 2008 election. It is a worrying trend. Shaky alliances negotiated by foreign diplomats may be successful in putting an end to violent standoffs, but they run the risk of simply papering over — and perhaps even consolidating — the causes behind political rifts.

In a country still recovering from civil war, a unity government may be the best outcome that Ivory Coast can hope for. At this stage any other outcome seems likely to result to widespread violence. Already well over 200 people have died as a result the election.

Not so long ago Ivory Coast was held up as an example of a highly successful African state — but in 2002 tensions between north and south that tore the country apart. As with any such conflict the origins are complex, but broadly they can be seen in the same light as the tribal divides between a Muslim north and Christian south which have caused such problems in Nigeria and Sudan.

This election — which was originally scheduled for 2005 but has been repeatedly postponed — has been fought along similar lines as the civil war. Gbagbo is from the south, Ouattra is from the north. The step from here back to civil conflict may be all too easy.

One positive that has come out of the situation in Ivory Coast has been the generally positive leadership role taken by regional institutions.  The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States have steered the negotiations and taken a strong and somewhat unexpected line against the incumbent Gbagbo.

Sanctions are already in place and military intervention — although unlikely — is being discussed. If the outcomes of other elections in the region are to be respected, it seems these African institutions recognise they must take steps to ensure their legitimacy.

Peter Fray

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