The courage of the people of Libya, following the pro-democracy campaigns in Tunisia and Egypt, has highlighted the deep-held desire for freedom across Africa. It has demonstrated what we always knew – the people of our continent crave the same liberties and rights as everyone else.
But while democracy is on the march in the north of our continent, in West Africa it has suffered a damaging reverse. In Côte d’Ivoire, the refusal of former President Laurent Gbagbo to step down threatens the imminent resumption of civil war. With elections scheduled to be held across Africa in the coming months, his defiance also risks encouraging other defeated candidates to ignore the will of their citizens.
The presidential elections in November were a key plank of Côte d’Ivoire’s peace accord brokered by the African Union with the support of the United Nations. The country’s independent electoral commission found the poll had been conducted fairly and won decisively by Alassane Ouattara. His victory has been widely recognised by the international community.
But Gbagbo has refused to accept the result and is using fear and violence to stay in power. Ethnic tensions are worsening and worryingly, religious rhetoric is being misused to mobilise forces in what is primarily a political stand-off. UN peace-keeping forces have also found themselves in the firing line.
Violence is escalating at an alarming rate. Hundreds of unarmed civilians have been attacked and shells have been fired into civilian neighbourhoods. The violence has resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis. An estimated 1 million people have fled their homes seeking refuge in other parts of Côte d’Ivoire and beyond its borders. A country which has endured nearly a decade of instability and conflict is on the brink of full-blown civil war.
This unfolding tragedy demands concerted action from the international community. But it is an African crisis and requires, above all, African leadership. As members of The Elders, we have no political power. But we do have personal experience of the terrible impact of conflict and have too often witnessed what happens when leaders fail to uphold human rights. We have also seen that principled political leadership can find solutions to seemingly intractable conflicts.
It is why we urge former President Gbagbo to respect the results of the election. We call on him immediately to stop his forces from attacking civilians and we ask that forces loyal to the new President do not fall into the spiral of violence.
The international community, under the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union, must not falter in its demands for Gbagbo to step down.
The AU decision to appoint a High Representative and convene negotiations between the parties is an important step. African leaders must not be discouraged by Ouattara’s rejection of their proposed candidate and should seek to find a nominee acceptable to both sides.
A resolution under consideration at the UN Security Council, drafted by France and others, calls for further sanctions and a ban on the use of heavy weapons in the capital. The international community must also urgently provide resources to enable humanitarian assistance to reach those displaced by the violence.
As African Elders, we take great pride in the economic, political and social progress across our continent. From north to south, there is reason for hope. But if Africa is to fulfil its rich potential, we need all its leaders to understand they are the servants, not the masters, of their people.
Graça Machel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are members of The Elders www.theElders.org