Sunday, January 2, 2011

Vote and Relax: Bring in The Diplomats

In the stakes for alarming post-conflict elections outcomes of 2010, Côte d'Ivoire could not be a more high-impact place in which to hold an election. It’s also proving to be very promising for the careers of those hard-working diplomats one so seldomly hears on the BBC.

As an aside, in terms of war potential, the Ivory Coast is way up there, or as Homer might say, "mmmm, War-Fresh". But while there are still avenues for dialogue (and therefore peace; dialogue often paves the way for peace in Africa), the basic premise of an election needs to take second place to negotiating a way towards avoiding egregious human rights abuses, and suffering of The People. Round-the-clock talks, strongly worded UN communiqués, press releases, and above all, Diplomacy is the order of the day.

One could ask what is the reasoning behind the clamour for elections in a place that so manifestly craves other equally time-critical changes? Changes like fairness in the labour market, a more equitable redistribution of public and private revenues, industrial relations reform, and those twin albatrosses that hang around the heads of so many African heads of state, health and education. But why would we do that when other pressing matters like egregious human rights abuses could occur in the absence of Dialogue?

The current Ivorian crisis is perplexing; and it already straining the immense skills and tireless efforts of The Diplomats, the UN, and a unity of other institutions and states all working around the clock to prevent further suffering of The People.

It's the mediocrity of leadership that really sets places like Côte d'Ivoire apart from other countries. For instance, the reasons advanced by third-time presidential wannabe and former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, as to why Laurent Gbagbo should be removed by force from his perch (HIS perch!) are that "Gbagbo would become entrenched in power and become more difficult to remove". This may seem obvious to you or I, but in the Realm of Diplomacy there are subtle nuances in this statement that defy the perusal of mere bystanders (i.e. people who are not working tirelessly from capitals around the world using Dialogue to pave the way for Peace).

For poor old Gbagbo, and perhaps his international burnish is not as cultivated as Ouattara's, it was always going to be hard campaigning against a UN-sanctioned, IMF-supercharged banker. Bankers are so charismatic in Africa (and they drive nicer cars). This was a tough break for Gbagbo, who ran on an imaginative negative campaign along the lines of 'Ouattara has nothing". Ironically, or hopefully in Gbagbo’s case, mediocrity appears to be an asset when it's "a position in an international organization". So a UN or IO slot executing foreign policy is where the leadership qualities of someone like a Laurent Gbagbo can really shine. Once appointed within the UN or an IO, someone like Gbagbo might finally be able to make that difference that they tried so hard as an elected (and unelected) official to achieve.

An American Diplomat made a good point when he remarked that there is "plenty of precedent, for instance, of former African leaders who have gone on to work with regional or international institutions".

This is described as "A Sort of Consolation Prize" when a corrupt and sometimes brutal elected official loses a popular vote. In the Democratisation Calculus (a sub-department of the Realm of Diplomacy), working within the international humanitarian community is the effluent run-off for individuals who (temporarily) refuse to accede to the results of an incorrigible election that just wouldn't rig their way. Fair enough, I say.

Which brings me to meddlesome neighbours. Good fences are hard to come by in places like Africa. The Berlin Conference some 120 years ago ostensibly carved up the continent but didn't budget for fences (or 'border security' in today's vernacular). This was a serious oversight when one considers the early multiculturalist objectives of the Conference. (The Conference is often derided as 'cookie-cutter' and arbitrarily separating clans and indigenous peoples - WRONG! - why not try to cause the tribes to understand and tolerate one another more by mixing and mingling them within colonies-soon-to-be-states?)

In one sense, good fences make bad neighbours in Africa. Why? Because the nation-state is obviously more dominant in the African Psyche than clan or ethicity. This variant of nationalism makes being a neighbour an act of open hostility. That's why it's so difficult for Gbagbo to find a peaceful solution; because everyone is ganging up on him.

You know, we are all Concerned About Africa; indeed the Accra Agenda calls for African states and their Donors to let them Do the Needful. The needful could be, hypothetically speaking, taking foreign taxpayers funds and spending it on transport and housing construction instead of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Brand-new Prados, opulent villas, and lavish workshops may seem unnecessary to the outside (paying) world, but in fragile spaces like Côte d'Ivoire, this is institution-building and upholding "nationally-owned and locally led processes".

Why are we so concerned about Africa? Because if for no other reason, the children. The suffering is no-one's fault, it's just something so tragic and unavoidable - we need to do something, anything, to make a difference. Those children never asked to be on UNICEF ‘spare change’ envelopes, you know.

The French have 900 or so troops garrisoned in Côte d'Ivoire. And the UN has 10,000-odd. Because they are concerned. But as events in 1994 showed us, even with a standing presence of French and UN troops, in some cases tragedy simply cannot be avoided (but we’ll try not to talk too much about that isolated example).

Earlier I mentioned working as an international civil servant as a consolation prize when a senior elected official (refuses to) accedes to an election outcome. It goes the other way too. Ouattara knows all about persistence. Ouattara served the administration of Félix Houphouët-Boigny and was even appointed as prime minister in the 90s. This is also someone who remained at the same university from his Bachelors all the way through to his Doctorate. He has twice served in both the IMF and the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). Being hard-to-remove is Ouattara's modus operandi. So, in a sense, the effect of Ouattara replacing Gbagbo is a zero-sum gain. One space in the international civil service opens up, only to be filled by way of the African Elections Consolation Prize Doctrine. Once in, it’s almost certain that Ouattara will find leaving office just as difficult as poor old Gbagbo. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. There are sure to be Diplomats at the ready to talk their way, our way, (?) around anomalous future election results to prevent suffering of The People. The good news for the striving Diplomats is that there is always a willingness to talk on all sides.

For now though, some very long nights await these tireless Talkers of Peace. And whilst both sides obstinately refuse to negotiate from their position as president, other avenues for peacemaking are open. From one(narrow) point of view the elections were basically about who becomes president, not jobs within the UN or an international organization, or consolation prizes, or asylum arrangements. But the Diplomats through High-Level Talks are the next best thing to enforcing an election result.

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