ECOWAS, the AU, and the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire

I have been following the post-election constitutional crisis in Cote d’Ivoire over the last month, and saw something interesting today that I thought was worth pointing out.  The BBC has reported that the latest round of talks between the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and the delegates from ECOWAS and the AU have made some progress, at least to the extent of lifting the blockade on challenger Alassane Ouattara’s hotel (Ouattara was declared the winner in the November 28 election by UN election observers, but Gbagbo disputes the result and refuses to step down).

What caught my eye was the following:

On Monday they were joined by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, representing the African Union (AU).

Mr Odinga said he had told Mr Gbagbo that power-sharing was not an option and would “actually hamper the democratisation process on the continent”.

(Those of you who follow Africa know that Mr. Odinga had an experience somewhat similar to Ouattara’s following the Kenyan elections of 2007)  What caught my eye was this “democratisation on the continent” language.  The two regional organizations appear to be looking beyond simply restoring domestic or regional order and considering the impact of this crisis’s outcome on domestic political events in the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa.  This is the latest development in a gradual erosion of the doctrine of non-intervention, which is particularly interesting in the context of Africa.  Due to the legacy of colonialism, African countries were historically very jealous of their sovereignty.  And yet now we see two major African (not Western) regional organizations actively getting involved with the domestic politics of one of their own member states.

The reason is not entirely clear, at least to me.  It’s probably that the disruption that could result from a renewed Ivorian civil war is great enough that the region sees this primarily as a threat to international security.  However the question remains why they are backing Ouattara and not Gbagbo – this would have been the easiest way to attempt to calm the situation, and would be more consistent with previous responses to strongmen in the region.  But then both the AU and ECOWAS have treaty requirements calling for the non-recognition of governments that come to power by extra-constitutional means.  Could it be that international law is *gasp* actually working?

My dissertation is on these international regimes for defending democracy, so let me offer up a few reasons why they could be effectively leading state behavior here.  One reason is that the collective decision of regional states to decide which candidate to support is a form of assurance game, and the democracy rule “solves” the game by operating as a “focal point.”  (This is based on Thomas Schelling).  States are relatively indifferent as to which leader comes to power, they just want order, and the existence of the rule gives them an easy way to all come to the same decision promptly and thereby get on with applying pressure to resolve the crisis.

The second is that these international treaty obligations exist only because of an increased commitment to democracy on the part of IO member-states, and that commitment has continued on past rule-formation into rule-execution.  This might be due to constructivist norm adoption, Goodman&Jinks-style acculturation, or because domestic publics demand compliance with the international rule.  Whatever the underlying mechanism, the gist of this possibility is that norms have increased their influence over African foreign policy-making.

The third possibility is that democratic leaders in the region see the events in Cote d’Ivoire as a direct threat to their own power.  In this case, regional leaders are enforcing the agreement not because of a commitment to democracy (as in a human rights treaty), but out of concern for contagion effects that could arise when would-be authoritarians in the countries of the region see a success in Cote d’Ivoire.  Democratic leaders therefore have good reason to enforce these rules because doing so enhances their own power vis-a-vis domestic anti-democratic opponents.  Thomas Ginsburg and Jon Pevehouse have each argued that this is the most likely reason these international legal documents exist in the first place.  Odinga’s statement quoted above lends some credence to this third viewpoint.  Thus the blog post.  This is obviously pretty thin evidence, but it’s probative nonetheless.

If this is correct that democratic leaders in the the region are seeing the Ivorian crisis as an issue involving their own security, it means several very interesting things.  First, it means that democracy has reached a very important threshold where a significant portion of the continent’s leaders are committed to democracy in a non-superficial way.  Remember, by calling foul on Gbagbo, they are delegitimizing the easiest way for a sitting democratic leader to retain power: election fraud.  Condemning coups in Niger or Madagascar might be a different thing, but here we’re talking about elections.

Second, if the domestic-threat hypothesis is correct, then an important shift has occurred in the way some African leaders think about sovereignty.  Pevehouse argues that these democracy regimes make the most sense when internal threats loom larger in the mind of sitting leaders than do external threats.  In other words, the possibility of external interference in internal affairs appears to have diminished in priority for these leaders.  This has interesting implications for human rights and perhaps also for the African Peer Review Mechanism.  That might be a way down the road yet, but at least the glimmerings of increased acceptance of a transnational role in governance and human rights issues can be found in the regional response to the Ivorian crisis.


About Jake Wobig

I teach international relations and comparative politics at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina
This entry was posted in Comparative Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to ECOWAS, the AU, and the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire

  1. RheeThink says:

    One thing you don’t really note is the importance of long-term planning when entering into an internal conflict. Without focusing on the public confidence in a country’s government, it is clear that any actions are going to be minimal and short-term at best.

    Please check out my blog,, where I put up my paper on international responses to internal conflicts. It touches more upon Libya, both both responses are similar and should be approached similarly.

  2. nkemkalu says:

    Did you ever get a chance to read this article and response on the situationn by Thabo Mbeki?
    A quote from the end of the article:

    “At the end of it all, there are many casualties.

    One of these is the African Union. The tragic events in Côte d’Ivoire have confirmed the marginalization of the union in its ability to resolve the most important African challenges.

    Instead, the AU has asserted the ability of the major powers to intervene to resolve these challenges by using their various capacities to legitimize their actions by persuading the United Nations to authorise their self-serving interventions.

    The United Nations is yet another casualty. It has severely undermined its acceptability as a neutral force in the resolution of internal conflicts, such as the one in Côte d’Ivoire. It will now be difficult for the United Nations to convince Africa and the rest of the developing world that it is not a mere instrument in the hands of the world’s major powers. This has confirmed the urgency of the need to restructure the organisation, based on the view that as presently structured the United Nations has no ability to act as a truly democratic representative of its member states.

    Thus, in various ways, the events in Côte d’Ivoire could serve as a defining moment in terms of the urgent need to reengineer the system of international relations. They have exposed the reality of the balance and abuse of power in the post-Cold War era, and put paid to the fiction that the major powers respect the rule of law in the conduct of international relations, even as defined by the U.N. Charter, and that, as democrats, they respect the views of the peoples of the world.

    We can only hope that Laurent and Simone Gbagbo and the Ivorian people do not continue to suffer as abused and humiliated victims of a global system which, in its interests, while shouting loudly about universal human rights, only seeks to perpetuate the domination of the many by the few who dispose of preponderant political, economic, military and media power.

    The perverse and poisonous proceedings that have afflicted Côte d’Ivoire pose the urgent question: How many blatant abuses of power will Africa and the rest of the developing world experience before the vision of a democratic system of global governance is realised? “

  3. Jake Wobig says:


    I think Mbeki’s response is absurd. And I don’t use that word lightly. He downplays the stolen election, as if the Constitutional Court’s decision to accept all of Gbagbo’s challenges and reject Ouattara’s somehow rectifies the underlying criminality of fraudulent elections. The closest thing we have to a neutral arbiter in this case is the UN, and I am much more inclined to accept their view of the validity of the election than anyone else. The hutzpa to say “The CC, rightly or wrongly, accepted the majority of complaints made by Gbagbo”… that “rightly or wrongly” hides ALOT.

    The idea that UNOCI behaved in a partisan manner is similarly absurd. Their initial mission was simply to surround Ouattara’s hotel to prevent him from being captured by Gbagbo’s army. That IS peacekeeping. Then they began documenting human rights violations on the part of Gbagbo’s followers. Also well within UN prerogatives. Mbeki is correct that they did not act to stop Forces Nouvelles from marching south, but there is likely nothing that a UN peacekeeping force could have done to stop it other than negotiations. We all learned this lesson is Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

    The idea that the AU has been undermined is silly. No serious student of IGOs expects them to be highly effective at anything involving security issues. In fact, I think the AU has demonstrated that they can seriously affect domestic politics, as their robust response paved the way to Ouattara’s claims being treated as a legitimate matter for international concern, much the same way that the Arab League’s resolution on Libya paved the way for the UNSC resolution allowing NATO involvement there.

    The idea that the UN should be “neutral” with regard to fraudulent elections is also silly. Sure they’re not neutral when one party has clearly committed a greater wrong. Again, this is the lesson of Rwanda, and it looks like the UN is learning it.

    And no serious person has ever said all the major powers obey international law, or that world politics is democratic. He’s just blowing over strawmen.

    The bigger question is why he would make his argument this way. My guess is that he’s in the old-guard African camp that is seriously concerned about the decline of the doctrine of non-intervention represented by the regional governance and democracy treaties, and UN involvement in overseeing elections. But there would be a better way to make that argument. Phrasing it this way suggests his audience is a domestic audience, either in South Africa or Africa more generally.

    The one thing I will give him is that presidential elections are probably a bad idea in a post-conflict situation. Some of the problems here might have been avoided if they had adopted more consociational institutions like parliamentarism with proportional representation plus robust federalism.

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