Originally published in Pambazuka.

Polarised and violent political crises that recur in nation states signal that the political formulae adopted to resolve the crises have not worked. Such is the stark reality in Côte d’Ivoire. The United Nations’s (UN) strategy to oversee elections and install a winner-takes-all Western-style ‘democratically elected’ state president has failed. Côte d’Ivoire is an avoidable disaster. For disaster to resurface is a marked failure of the UN and a grave disappointment, as one cannot help recalling a similar disaster in the Congo in the 1960s and the current election chaos in Haiti.

The intended consequence of the UN arrogating itself the right to certify results of sovereign elections in a polarised Côte d’Ivoire is the current messy state of two presidents, with one endorsed by the UN and the other by the Constitutional Council. Here, the ‘international community’, signalling the collective wishes of the US-led Western world, saw the need for a regime change in Côte d’Ivoire and poured in resources to the tune of US$400 million (and rising) to effect that change through the agency of the UN. To make sure that everything went on according to plan, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, installed his own kinsman to be in charge of affairs on the ground. Ban Ki-moon therefore had direct and unadulterated communication channel through Mr Y. J. Choi, his special representative. Ban Ki-moon was on top of happenings on the ground, with good intelligence across the country supported by those of the EU delegation, World Bank, NGOs and Western embassies in the country. All essentials were therefore in place for the UN not to fail to deliver credible election results, which in turn would deliver a ‘universally’ accepted state president. And what is of great psychological importance here is that the exhausted population expected the UN not to fail them.

It is all clear that the smooth regime change strategy of the UN has failed. What is striking about this UN failure is that it has led to further violence and the loss of life. The primary function of UN intervention in a war-torn state is the prevention of the loss of life and destruction of property. It has become apparent that the UN fails to achieve such objectives when the mission is seen to be dictated by the national interests of powerful voices in the UN Security Council (UNSC). A case in point is Haiti in 2004, when the US, France and Canada ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide even though he had been democratically elected by a clear majority of Haitians, simply because the powers that be wanted a regime change. The crisis in Haiti continues to fester despite the scale of resources being poured in there via the UN and by the US.

It is the failure of the UN to impartially address the question of transition in the national interest of Côte d’Ivoire that has led to the current state of heightened tension and threat of violent disorder. Haiti is a glaring example from where lessons learnt, shrewdly applied and without prejudice, could have prevented this avoidable disaster in Côte d’Ivoire. The UN has abysmally failed the long-suffering people of Côte d’Ivoire by seeking to play a poker game with the egos of the three leaders who have contributed to the destruction of the very country they want to rule at all cost. The three protagonists, Henri Konan Bédié, Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo could have been prevented from contesting for state power through a transitional arrangement that embraced all three egos but with a caveat preventing each one of them from participating in future elections as they laid down the foundations to reorder the Ivorian society. The challenge here is harnessing what each of the three has to offer for the betterment of the Ivorian society. The combined experience of the three is a national asset that must not be left polarised to the disadvantage of the country. This is what the UN has denied the people of Côte d’Ivoire. It hurts as the UN has the capacity to do better if the political will to do so reflects first the national interest of Côte d’Ivoire.

When political crisis explodes in a country and the crisis turns violent this means that the nation’s centre can no longer hold. The political body is then signalling a need for the reordering of society. What matters here most is the ability of mediators to humbly listen to and interpret, without prejudice, the intestinal disquiet like a trained doctor would with a stethoscope. The disorder also presents an opportunity for sober examination and the creation of a new society in the collective national interest. If the status quo ante had worked things would not have fallen apart in the first place. The old centre could not hold. Why then intervene only to foist the old political establishment on the suffering people again? Why did the UN think that they could placate the three egos with an election contest when the very UN knew that each of the three protagonists felt it to be their manifest destiny to rule Côte d’Ivoire at the expense of the other? It was the UN’s manifest destiny to save the people of Côte d’Ivoire from the destructive egos of Bédié, Ouattara and Gbagbo. This, the UN has failed!

I am writing from experience of dealing with the UN in the field of preventive diplomacy during the Sierra Leone crisis. I was part of the team that worked invisibly, between 1995 and 2003, to assist in laying the foundation for bringing the devastating war in Sierra Leone to an eventual end. I also quietly worked on triggering Liberia to hold elections in 1997 after brokering an entente cordiale between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in 1995. Long before then I had managed to persuade President Museveni to offer to send troops to Liberia to break the state of mistrust that hitherto existed between the NPFL and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) intervention force, ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group). President Museveni went further to persuade Tanzania and Zambia to make their presence felt in Greater Liberia with their troops to ease tension. Kenya offered General Opandi who saved so many lives across the divide and made an African solution possible in Liberia.

Between 1995 and 1996, as the special envoy of International Alert, I managed to negotiate: (1) a unilateral ceasefire with Corporal Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF/SL); (2) the release of 19 hostages including 10 Europeans; and (3) for an RUF/SL peace team to leave the forest in Sierra Leone to prepare themselves for peace talks in Côte d’Ivoire. It was this singular effort that contributed to the processes leading to peace negotiations in Abidjan and Lome. In helping with the drafting of the Abidjan Peace Agreement, some of us saw an opportunity to facilitate measures that will enable the people of Sierra Leone to patiently reorder their own society after their own interest and image. Others were impatient to let the status quo they were familiar with re-emerge.

In 1997, with my hands-on experience and the benefit of hindsight, I tried to let the newly-elected president of Liberia, Charles Ghankay Taylor, see the futility in his winner-takes-all electoral victory as I tried to explain to him that he had handed himself a poisoned chalice. As a prosecutor of a protracted war he could not unify and at the same time build the country alone through his National Patriotic Party (NPP). His victory was a means to an end and not an end in itself. By this, I explained to President Taylor that he should see his election as a transitional presidency to reorder the Liberian society and hand over to a new generation groomed to take Liberia forward into a period of all-round accelerated development. His duty was to immediately put in place structures to demonstrably raise the quality of life of his people and wage a relentless war against corruption and mediocrity in all areas of national life to prepare the ground for the next generation of leaders. To succeed in this he had to change his ‘Ghankay’ persona and assume an all embracing transitional bearing that would attract all hands and brains on deck to steer the nation to a purposeful future. To demonstrate this I beseeched President Taylor to effect a change in the nation’s motto from the alienating ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’ to the more embracing ‘The Love of Liberty Unites Us’. This is how I tried to help President Taylor to interpret his mandate as then I had my finger on the pulse of Liberia.

After several visits and with other promptings from within his ruling party, the NPP, President Taylor agreed to a form of a national conference, in 1998, to chart an inclusive way forward. The outcome of the conference did not see the light of day. President Taylor instead went on to style himself after President Tubman.

I could not give up on Liberia. In 1998 I approached Major Kojo Boakye-Djan in London and persuaded him to go with me to Monrovia to convince President Taylor to use his presidency to create a transitional space that could usher in Liberia a brave new society making use of modern advances in agriculture, medicine, science and technology that were at their disposal. Major Boakye-Djan and I had some useful sessions with President Taylor and out of these emerged a working document, which again never saw the light of day. Despite having access to several African leaders and intelligentsia, I decided on Major Boakye-Djan precisely because I saw in him an organised mind that delivers under pressure from competing interests. What was important to me was the fact that Major Boakye-Djan had helped to successfully transfer state power, in a violent state of affairs during the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) period (June to September, 1979), when he was the deputy head of state of Ghana and spokesperson.

I was to call on Major Boakye-Djan again in early 1998 to go to Sierra Leone to sit down with Major Johnny Paul Koroma to initiate a transitional arrangement to reorder the Sierra Leonean society. Major Koroma’s AFRC had booted out President Tejan Kabbah into exile in neighbouring Conakry, Guinea in May 1997 and with the help of the newly elected British New Labour Party Prime Minister, Tony Blair, President Kabbah was fighting back.

The task of finding African solutions to Africa’s problems led Major Boakye-Djan and I to develop a conceptual framework for effective political transition through a phased bottom-up transfer of state power from the local authority level upwards. We believe that societies coming out of war have an enabling opportunity to create a new society in their own collective interest and progressive image. Inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deployed to assist in bringing about change must exercise extreme patience so that they do not end up further deepening the crisis by seeking to shape that weak and traumatised society in the image and interest of those who paid the piper.

In 1996, I first witnessed the depth of Africa’s problems when in a heated discussion with a top UN official over the psychological importance of evolving ‘African solutions to Africa’s Problems’ and the leading role that must be accorded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in the search for peace in Sierra Leone, this top African UN official raged into me that: ‘…the UN cannot play second fiddle to the OAU…’ Unfortunately, his Commonwealth colleague also held the same view. It is such vaunted view that has led to the violent stalemate in Côte d’Ivoire. Meanwhile ordinary Africans continue to lose their life and property inexplicably in an avoidable disaster. The assertion by Ban Ki-moon that ‘mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population’, collaterally exposes ordinary Liberian citizens in Côte d’Ivoire to retribution. Here, Ban Ki-moon throws caution to the wind to attract sympathy to his failing operation thus deepening the chaos. Ban Ki-moon makes African life expendable.

We must not forget that whenever the West and/or the UN mess up in Africa it is left with African leaders to clean up the mess. In 2003 in Liberia, it was Obasanjo, Konare, Kufuor and Mbeki who came to the rescue with the skills of His Excellency Amara Essy and Dr Ibn Chambas, then heading the African Union and ECOWAS respectively. They persuaded President Taylor to quit his presidency. I had earlier been sent in June by Essy and Chambas to discuss options with President Taylor. In 2007 in Côte d’Ivoire, President Mbeki cleared the mess for Gbagbo to assume and share state power. In 2005 in Liberia it took the skills of Presidents Kufuor and Mbeki to get Ambassador George Oppong Weah to concede defeat to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in order to save Liberia from imminent collapse. In Haiti in 2004 Mbeki had to offer a safe haven for President Aristide of Haiti. And now in Côte d’Ivoire, the AU is busy trying to clean up the mess and also clear the air of statements purported to have been issued on behalf of the member states.

The UN has all that it takes to save Côte d’Ivoire from collapse but it cannot do so, so far as the UN continues to play ‘second fiddle’ to those who pay the piper.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo is an independent consultant on Preventive Diplomacy and the National Interest.