WASHINGTON -- Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo is living up to the stereotype of an African leader clinging to power, disconnected from the country's citizens and ignoring their expressed will.
The drama is cast as a personal power struggle between Gbagbo, who was never properly elected yet ruled Côte d'Ivoire for 10 years after the flawed 2000 election, and Alassane Ouattara, the candidate in the November 28 runoff who is preferred as the country's next president by 54 percent of voting Ivorians.
The world has rightly rallied to back the people's choice. The United Nations, the African Union, the U.S. and France have all called for Gbagbo to turn over power to Ouattara.
However, this fixation on the personal failings of leaders obscures the deeper problem: a fundamental disjuncture between Africa's modern political institutions and its ethnic communities and traditional institutions. This disjuncture, so well reflected in Cote d'Ivoire, is at the heart of the continent's crisis of governance. Contemporary African states are poorly functioning hybrids of indigenous cultures and customs mixed with Arab and European models of governance that arrived with invasions, colonialism and migration.
Rather than merely search yet again for short-term solutions in the violent aftermath of an election, it would seem more sensible to look for ways to prevent future crises rooted in Africa's dysfunctional political systems.
The crisis in Côte d'Ivoire manifests a deep rift between the largely Muslim north and Christian south exacerbated by ethnic tensions -- a result of colonial borders drawn without regard for the integrity of African ethnic communities. Since Côte d'Ivoire's borders cut across principal ethnic groups that have a significant presence in neighboring countries, every crisis is a regional crisis.
The resulting cross-national divisions have been preyed upon by politicians willing to ride ethnic bigotry and regional chauvinism into power. Ouattara, for instance, was prevented by coup leader General Robert Guei from contesting the 2000 election based on highly exclusivist "Iviorite" citizenship laws intended to disenfranchise northerners considered of foreign parentage.
If, as is likely, Ouattara takes power, his biggest challenge will be reunifying a country still divided by the legacy of the 2002 civil war. That means tackling national identity and citizenship issues, reforming land tenure, and devolving power from the presidency to achieve more representative and inclusive governance.
For Cote d'Ivoire as elsewhere, it is especially important that such devolution create more linkages with the large segments of the population whose lives are still governed on a daily basis by African customary and traditional institutions.
What goes for Cote d'Ivoire goes for so many other states. The redesign of Africa's governing institutions should keep in mind four priorities, all of which apply to Cote d'Ivoire:
First, Africa's "big man" political tradition must be replaced by new laws and arrangements that better balance power among independent government institutions to achieve real accountability. Côte d'Ivoire's Second Republic (2000) constitution provides for a strong presidency within the framework of a separation of powers, but, as in most of Africa, the political system is dominated by the president.
Côte d'Ivoire's 225-member unicameral National Assembly largely passes legislation introduced by the president, and it often acts as a highly partisan and divisive rubber stamp for the presidency. The crisis of disunity facing the country is of such magnitude that consideration should be given to constitutional reform establishing a bicameral parliament that keeps the directly elected lower house, and adds an upper house of traditional authorities and prominent citizens that represents the broader interests of society, and acts as a stabilizing body to help forge national unity.
Strengthening the legislative and judicial branches of government is key to achieving a balance of power that will create more accountability and thus greater national harmony.
Second, power and wealth must be diffused throughout society in order to bring government closer to the people. Power in Africa is not only concentrated in the office of the president, but in the capital cities as well. If well-coordinated at the national level, the distribution of power and resources from the center to local elected and administrative bodies is central to curbing corruption and promoting efficient delivery of services.
Engaging traditional authorities in this way can also help to increase the government's presence and legitimacy at the village level. Focusing on rural development, especially investment in the agricultural sector, will enhance this power shift since the agricultural sector employs close to 70 percent of the economically active population in Africa.
Côte d'Ivoire is the world's leading cocoa producer, and agriculture represents 24 percent of its GDP, with 60 percent to 70 percent of Ivorians engaged in some form of agricultural activity.
Third, education and skills training to build the future with an informed and empowered electorate is critical. It is especially so in Côte d'Ivoire, where the new government will face the challenge of finding productive outlets for demobilized ex-combatants and dismantled militias so that they don't become foot soldiers in another round of the political turmoil first ushered in with the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993.
Finally, only greater societal harmony and discipline can solve long-standing divisions exacerbated by African politicians mobilizing ethnic communities with all-or-nothing doomsday scenarios to capture power. Clearly this will take time since this political practice is deeply engrained in a place like Côte d'Ivoire, where the country's second president, Henri Bedie, whipped up xenophobia against Muslim northerners to block his main rival, Alassane Ouattara, in 1995, before Bedie himself was ousted by General Guei's 1999 coup. Bedie lit the match that continues to burn Ivorians today. Ouattara must start by preaching and practicing inclusivity and national reconciliation.
From the perspective of Africa's challenges, it is not surprising that many leaders are today looking East as much as West for a model of governance even as they seek to restore certain indigenous ways. While Africans would certainly benefit from the rule of law, protection of individual liberties and separation of powers, the fact is that multiparty elections have not delivered sustained results or avoided violence. In this light, the Chinese model, with its emphasis on social harmony, political stability and rapid growth, seems more relevant to many -- especially as China's presence grows across the continent.
Africa's best hope is finding a middle way of governance that is inclusive and rooted in the legitimacy of its own ways, but borrows pragmatically from East and West to fit its challenges. Africa's answer may be another hybrid form of governance, but one constructed by Africans themselves instead of imposed from the outside.
© GLOBAL VIEWPOINT NETWORK/TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES