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Can Africa avoid violence after disputed elections?

By Phil Clark, Special to CNN
Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara pictured. in Abidjan on April 6, 2011.
Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president Alassane Ouattara pictured. in Abidjan on April 6, 2011.
  • In 2011, 21 African nations will go to the polls: in 2010 12 African countries held votes
  • Ongoing violence in Ivory Coast shows the consequences of a disputed election
  • Expert: Ivory Coast has finally seen the international community intervene militarily
  • Power-sharing as a solution to unresolved elections in has largely failed, says expert

Editor's Note: Dr. Phil Clark is a lecturer in comparative and international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and convenor of Oxford Transitional Justice Research.

(CNN) -- As current events in Ivory Coast highlight, elections are hardly the knock-out cure for countries dealing with deep social divisions and long histories of armed conflict. They just as often produce the sort of violent confrontation currently ensuing between the forces of deposed Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo and newly elected president, Alassane Ouattara. In such situations, international responses have also typically made things worse.

For a continent often criticized for a lack of democracy, it is election season in Africa. In 2010, twelve African countries held presidential or parliamentary votes or constitutional referenda, including Sudan, Rwanda and Kenya.

In 2011, 21 African nations will go to the polls, with the world focused on the recent independence referendum in Southern Sudan and the upcoming elections in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

The electoral landscape in Africa has changed substantially in the last decade. Fewer and fewer African leaders can rig votes entirely to guarantee landslide victories. This is because opposition political parties are better organized, and local and international election monitoring is more effective.

These are positive developments -- but new problems have emerged.

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The norm in Africa today -- with some notable exceptions such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda -- is closely fought elections with heavily disputed poll results. Defeated presidents such as Mwai Kibaki in Kenya in 2007, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2008 and Gbagbo in Ivory Coast in 2010 responded first by coercing their electoral commissions to rejig the numbers in their favor, then, when their opponents protested, by resorting to force to stay in power.

As violence escalated, a shocked international community tried to mediate between the protagonists. In each case, negotiations broke down and armed conflict continued, causing hundreds of civilian deaths and an escalating humanitarian crisis.

The next international response was to advocate for power-sharing agreements. This is the new international tool to resolve election disputes -- convince the protagonists to divide the political spoils. In Zimbabwe and Kenya, both the incumbents and opposition initially rejected this proposal, holding out for complete victory. But with increasing international pressure and domestic instability, they eventually caved in.

Power-sharing as a solution to unresolved elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya, however, has largely failed. The main reason is that in these arrangements -- as in coalition governments all over the world -- power is never shared equally. Incumbent leaders always secure a greater portion of influence because they already hold the levers and can dictate the terms of the new government. In the process, they strengthen their position while weakening their opponents and increasing their chances of winning outright at the next election.

Mugabe, Kibaki and their respective cohorts took the plum cabinet posts and retained control over the military, police and security services, leaving their opponents unenviable roles such as economic development and reconstruction. This allowed draconian leaders who refused to cede power at the ballot box to continue their politics of control, while undermining the opposition who are expected to rebuild the nation after conflict.

The norm in Africa today -- with some notable exceptions -- is closely fought elections with heavily disputed poll results.
--Phil Clark, lecturer in comparative and international politics

Both sides have also spent considerable resources preparing for the next election, when again they hope to win outright power. This has distracted them from critical day to day political issues. The examples of Zimbabwe and Kenya highlight that, at best, power-sharing is a deeply unstable temporary measure, with negative long-term consequences.

In Ivory Coast, the UN and African Union proposal for power-sharing fell flat because international negotiators underestimated the antipathy between Gbagbo and Ouattara, which stems from conflicts between the two leaders as far back as the early 1990s. Neither leader could abide the thought of sharing government with his sworn enemy.

Following these failed negotiations, in the last week the international community has adopted a new strategy, namely intervening militarily to support Ouattara's overthrow of Gbagbo. What began as a joint U.N.-French peacekeeping mission with a mandate to protect civilians has become direct involvement in the conflict to support the democratically elected president.

This dramatic shift may have major repercussions when election results are disputed anywhere in Africa in the future. Ivory Coast may be a one-off case, given France's colonial links to the country and the U.N.'s concerns over massacres in western Ivory Coast last week. These brought back memories of Rwanda in 1994, where UN peacekeepers stood idly by while innocent civilians were butchered in their thousands.

Alternatively, when Ivory Coast is viewed alongside NATO and French military support for rebels in Libya, we may be witnessing a new desire by international powers to use force to achieve political outcomes in Africa -- particularly when military intervention is not unilateral, as in Iraq, but supporting local armed groups.

What is far from clear, however, is whether this international military approach will produce more stable, lasting results than flawed attempts at power-sharing in Africa.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dr. Phil Clark.

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