Are Elections the to African Conflicts?

By Cohen, Herman J. | Stability Operations, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Are Elections the to African Conflicts?


Cohen, Herman J., Stability Operations


From Angola to Rwanda and now, Côte d'Ivoire

WHERE is it written in any holy scripture that free and fair elections hold the answer to deep-seated internal conflicts in Africa? It seems to me that if the core reasons for the conflicts are not settled first through negotiations, then elections can actually make matters worse.

When I was running the Africa Bureau in the State Department (1989-1993), we were heavily involved as mediators or helpful observers in seven African internal conflicts. At that time, the various diplomatic players, including us, were accused of perpetuating a syndrome called "signature obsession." The pattern was that mediators would push the conflict participants to sign a peace agreement that would lead to an election. The details in the peace agreements were not that important - just sign it and have an election. After that, everything will fall into place.

Today, the "signature obsession" has been upgraded to the "election obsession." No need for a full peace agreement, with a new constitution and other bells and whistles, just declare a cease-fire, establish a government of national unity and proceed to an election. I regret to report that today's mediators have forgotten the mistakes that others and I committed twenty years ago.

Just look at two examples of the early 1990s

In 1989, after Assistant Secretary for Africa Chet Crocker had negotiated a deal that removed both Cuban and South African troops from Angola, the internal conflict between the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) regime and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel movement remained active and bloody.

An ad hoc group of twenty African heads of state came together in August 1989 to discuss the next step. They proposed a period of co-habitation, with the MPLA and UNITA sharing power for five years, after which a regular election would take place. UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi would be vice president and could use the time to demonstrate his capabilities as a peacetime political leader.

Unfortunately, Savimbi rejected the proposal and continued his guerrilla warfare. He wanted a nothing less than a "free and fair election" right away. After another year, the United States persuaded both sides to enter negotiations. At the core of the negotiation was an election that took place in September 1992. UNITA lost, and predictably, they went back to fighting. The underlying reasons for the conflict were not discussed during the negotiations. The result was ten more years of war and devastation, ending in UNITA's military defeat. It was a high price to pay to settle a conflict that is still simmering today.

The second example is Rwanda. An internal war between the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front and the Rwanda government was mediated by the East African regional organization Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). A peace agreement leading to an election was signed in 1993. Any unbiased reading of the agreement could only reach the conclusion that the proposed election could never have been held because it would have resulted in the political suicide of both sides. The protagonists signed the agreement in order to have the time to prepare for more war. The result was the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Yet, the international community celebrated the 1993 agreement as a victory for peace because it called for a "free and fair" election.

Fast forward to Côte d'Ivoire today

The underlying cause of deep-seated civil conflict in Côte d'Ivoire is demographic. The primary indigenous ethnic groups of Côte d'Ivoire have seen their majority eroded over the past 50 years by the emergence of immigrant communities from countries to the north, mainly Burkina Faso. …

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Are Elections the to African Conflicts?
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