About two weeks after Barack Obama won 2008 Presidential Election, I was in Addis Ababa speaking to a number of ambitious students and young leaders from across Africa.   I surveyed their impressions of Obama and what they think he meant for Africa.  Most of the answers were fairly predictable. “Obama understands Africa…We think of him as our president as well…He’s the leader of the African diaspora…,” those sorts of things.

But one young woman’s answer stood out.  “Sure, Obama is great,” she said. “But what Africa really needs is more John McCains. Leaders who will lose an election and not start a war over it.”

Needless to say, I have been thinking about her remark these past few weeks as I’ve followed the situation in Cote D’Ivoire.

The incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo lost a November 28 election to challenger Alasanne Ouatarra.  Gbagbo is refusing to step down and is using his control of the army to foment violence, including direct assaults on the building in which Outarra has set up his government in waiting.

This kind of election related violence is nothing new for Africa. A similar situation unfolded in Kenya in late 2007 when partisans unleashed mobs of supporters to attack each other following a disputed elections.  In that case, the African Union and others intervened and agreed upon a power-sharing arrangement. That was the expeditious thing to do at the time, but it did re-in force the notion that all one has to do to stay in power after losing an election is to foment violence.

Since the end of the Cold War, elections have been de rigeur in most of Africa. Most of the time the incumbent or his party wins handily and that’s that.  Other times, the incumbent uses violence to reinforce his position. Sometimes challengers use violence to reinforce their position.  But very rarely only once has an incumbent peacefully transferred power after losing an election.

What is remarkable about Cote D’Ivoire is that, so far, everyone is saying: “Enough is enough.” The African Union, the regional group ECOWAS, the UN, France and the United States are calling on Gbagbo to step down.   Full stop.  ECOWAS has even issued an ultimatum to Gbagbo: give up power, or we will intervene and forcible oust you.

This is a big test — both for the prospects of free and fair elections in Africa and of the ability of the African Union to support democracy across the continent. If African-led diplomacy is able to engineer Gbagbo’s ouster, other leaders might think twice before fomenting violence after losing an election.  If they reach a “compromise” that lets Gbagbo enter into a power sharing agreement with Ouatarra, well the lesson is that elections don’t really matter so long as you control the military.

This is why the Cote D’Ivoire situation is so important, and why it deserves more attention than it is currently getting among blogs and the mainstream media.  At stake is nothing less than the prospect of democracy in Africa–and of African institutions emerging as a forces for progressive change throughout the continent.

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