Gbagbo, general elections and the Ides of March, By Steve Ayorinde
An astonishing piece of news from Cote d’Ivoire on Tuesday is presumably getting the whole of Africa to talk.
Simone, wife of the former president of this intriguing West African country was sentenced to a 20-year jail term for her role in the post-election violence that got three thousand people killed in 2010/2011. Her son, Michel, got a lesser sentence of five years as did several others, including former top military chiefs, who were found guilty of the same offence such as disturbing the peace, forming and organizing arm gangs and undermining state security.
The 65-year-old woman got her jail term in the same country where she was once revered as ‘Iron Lady’ and at a time when her husband is standing trial at the International Court of Justice, after becoming the first Head of State to be taken into the court’s custody. Like her husband, she too is wanted by the ICC for alleged crimes against humanity.
Tuesday’s spectacular development underscores the transient nature of power and should get Africa talking, not just about the sit-tight syndrome that is afflicting the continent, but also about the administration of justice in politically-volatile environments.
But Simone Gbagbo’s story should get Nigerians pondering, for two reasons.
The political turmoil in Cote d’Ivoire was a key reference point last month when tension heightened between ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo and his estranged ‘godson’ President Goodluck Jonathan. In what was his reaction to the postponement of the general elections, Obasanjo had alleged that not only was the postponement forced on the Independent National Electoral Commission in order to pull some advantage for Jonathan, but also that it was symptomatic of what he called the ‘Gbagbo Treatment’ that Jonathan wished to foist on Nigeria if the election does not go his way.
Laurent Gbagbo had ruled Cote d’Ivoire for 10 year before the 2010 Presidential elections that eventually spelt his doom. Sensing that public opinion appeared in favour of his contender, Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo forced a postponement of the election till the time he thought he would win. But when he saw that the poll was not going his way, he challenged the vote count, alleging fraud and eventually called for annulment of results from nine of the country’s regions. Although he still lost at the run-off poll, he refused to relinquish power, thereby plunging his country into five-month violence.
Gbagbo, who assumed power as a popular candidate after a mass revolt in 2000, would later be humiliated out of office, forcibly dragged out of a bunker in his underwear. That happened a month before the election that produced Jonathan as president in 2011. To Obasanjo, who incidentally was an official mediator in the Ivorian crisis at that time, it is apparent that the stage is being prepared for the ‘gbagbonisation’ of Nigeria’s electoral process. And this, according to Obasanjo is fuelled by Jonathan’s apprehension about “life after Aso Rock” especially if he is succeeded by General Muhammadu Buhari.
I have read Obasanjo’s Gbagbo Theory several times and it is difficult not to appreciate his concerns. It is all too easy to sense that Jonathan’s party appears a bit edgy, desperate even, about the popularity of the leading opposition party, the All Progressive Party and Buhari, its Presidential candidate, and, therefore, appears constrained to resort to utterances and actions that project its reluctance to proceed with the election.
It was bad enough that the President feigned ignorance of the motive and the decision to postpone the election in the first instance. Sounding non-committal about the new dates, in spite of the reassurance from both the Independent National Electoral Commission, and picking holes in everything INEC says further fuels suspicion that if it would agree to go ahead with the elections at all, it will be on its own terms.
The way the president and his party address issues that concern INEC, one would think it was the opposition that appointed Mahmoud Jega, the commission’s chairman or that it was not the same man who announced the result of the elections four years ago.
And so when the discourse shifts from real issues to questioning INEC’s readiness and Jega’s impartiality, to the likelihood of having election in areas affected by insurgency, the disposition of the military to the election dates, and to either disqualifying the opposition candidate or demonizing him, one senses in PDP the type of desperation that makes Obasanjo’s Gbagbo Theory plausible.
In other words, if delay tactics fails to stop a perceived popular opposition movement, could the election become inconclusive should a particular party cry foul over the use of card readers or militarization of the polls? Will result be declared if a party pulls out mid-way? Would a re-run be satisfactory if it becomes inevitable? Or would there be a logjam that can make the May 29 handing-over ceremony impossible if the incumbent feels cheated and therefore refuses to relinquish power?
But then as scary as the Gbagbo Treatment may sound, it is also consoling, in the sense that it offers a reassurance that the international community has developed more than a passing interest in the Nigerian election, and watching us almost like Big Brother.
However, Gbagbo to Nigeria is not just about Laurent who refused to quit when the game was up, but also about Simone, who took her spousal intervention role beyond what the law and propriety allowed. Her story should serve as a lesson to every spouse of men in power.
Simone Gbagbo’s fall should be a reference in particular to our own First Lady, Dame Patience, who, more than ever before, has shown that the pressing demands of politics can draw certain utterances that were probably not meant to be offensive or destructive, but which ended up as reckless and inciting as seen in her recent diatribe about Buhari being “brain dead” and the one about stoning those who call for change. It is the same ICC where the Gbagbos are in its black book that the APC has reported Mrs. Jonathan for those damaging utterances.
It is instructive that Gbagbo, whose descent into ignominy started on the eve of the election that brought Jonathan into power, is witnessing the sentencing of his wife in the same month that Nigeria is returning to the polls to elect a new President. I should think no Nigerian wants this Ivorian name that connotes fraud and deceit in Yoruba as a reason to beware of the Ides of March as March 28 draws near.