BOSTON — The dramatic arrest in Ivory Coast of Laurent Gbagbo in the fortified bunker of the presidential residence in Abidjan pulls the strategic West African country back from the brink of civil war.
Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the November presidential election, has a tough task ahead, to bring all parts of the country's population to work together to restore its democracy and re-establish its economy. That work is of crucial importance for Ivory Coast, which has one of the largest international cocoa markets, and the interlinked economies of West Africa.
Even more importantly, Gbagbo's arrest sends an important message to all of Africa's leaders: Respect the results of elections.
It's a message crucial to Africa's democracies and economies and it has been ignored by too many for much too long. But there are signs that the tide is turning.
The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began by taking down two of the continent's most entrenched leaders. Those upheavals gave Africa's longtime rulers and dictators a jolt, and warned them that they ignore the will of their people at their peril.
The importance of respecting elections is especially crucial now because it comes near the beginning of Africa's election sweepstakes year. More than 30 elections are being held in Africa in 2011 and more than 30 of them are presidential polls. That is a lot of elections for Africa's 54 countries. And it includes key countries like Nigeria, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Madagascar, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The significance of this was not lost on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he looked at Ivory Coast.
"What happens in Cote d'Ivoire has huge implications for the continent that will have 16 presidential elections this year," said Ban earlier this month. He warned that the U.N. would only support the "democratically elected leader" and that it would "continue to protect the innocent civilians and we will try to bring those who commit mass atrocities to justice."
Those were fateful words for Laurent Gbagbo.
Gbagbo's big mistake was to try to steal the elections while nearly 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers were in the country safeguarding the terms of the 2005 agreement that brought an end to Ivory Coast's civil war.
At first it seemed like Gbagbo, 65, might get away with the election theft. He ordered the courts he controlled to nullify enough votes for Ouattara, 69, so that Gbagbo could claim victory and extend his 10 year rule. Pretexts like that have worked before, but Gbagbo's slight of hand was not accepted in Ivory Coast nor by the country's neighbors in the the West African regional economic bloc (Ecowas). Gbagbo's attempt to manipulate the election was also rejected by the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.
The African Union wavered for a moment in early December when it sent in former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki as a mediator. No doubt Mbeki took his tired and widely discredited "African solutions for African problems" panacea: a government of national unity including both Gbagbo and Ouattara. That plan has not worked in Zimbabwe or Kenya, so why did Mbeki think it would work in Ivory Coast? In any case, Mbeki left quickly and his mediation was quickly jettisoned.
There were months of fruitless negotiations, but Gbagbo would not budge. Ouattara stuck to his guns, too, and attempted to run the country from the Golf Hotel in downtown Abidjan. The United Nations peacekeepers strongly defended the hotel from attacks by Gbagbo's forces and broke the blockade preventing food from reaching the hotel.
International sanctions starved Gbagbo of the funds he was collecting from lucrative cocoa exports. Finally Ouattara's forces, the rebels from the earlier civil war, swept through the country, seizing control of virtually all areas. Only Abidjan, the country's largest city remained in Gbagbo's control.
Gbagbo should have understood that his time was up when the media began referring to him as Ivory Coast's "strongman." The term was did not suggest that he was strong. It said that he was no longer recognized as the president.
Gbagbo made the strategic mistake of using his weaponry to fire upon the Golf Hotel and other targets. The United Nations used its mandate to protect civilian lives by knocking out Gbagbo's artillery. Ouattara's forces then stormed into Gbagbo's bunker and took him captive.
Under Ban Ki-moon's leadership, the United Nations is taking a more decisive role in supporting Africa's democracies. Also the African Union might be getting stronger, after years of supporting the incumbent, no matter what.
But make no mistake, Africa's democracies have yet to turn the corner.
There are some good precedents, like the 2008 election in Ghana where challenger John Atta Mills won by a slim majority and there was a peaceful change of leadership and change in the ruling party. It was one of Africa's most positive election milestones and it was dramatic, as shown in the video below.
Of course there are many bad precedents, like how Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has rigged a series of elections through violence and voting fraud. One of the worst aspects is how South Africa and other neighboring countries have endorsed Mugabe's theft. Zimbabwe is scheduled to vote on a new constitution this year, although Mugabe has scuppered attempts to draft a new one. It appears Mugabe, 87 and reportedly finally showing signs of his age, wants to hold elections for yet another five year term in order to make sure his Zanu-PF party remains in power.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and its biggest economy, appears to be making a concerted effort to hold credible elections, after several that have been disgraces. Nigeria's elections — three separate votes for parliament, president and state governors — have had a rocky start with two postponements and a series of bombings, but many Nigerians remain hopeful that these elections will put their democracy on a stronger footing.