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What is the way out for Ivory Coast? A civil war

March 25, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

Andrew Mwenda on the Independent advances a provocative interpretation of the causes of and solutions to the institutional impasse that we are witnessing in Cote d’Ivoire. Firstly: why are political elites so reluctant to abandon positions of power when they lose elections?

“In the absence of a shared vision, the only unifying principle between elites and the electorate becomes identity – religious and ethnic.  The more the (economic) interests of elites and ordinary voters are divergent, the higher will be the tendency to appeal to identity. Nowhere in Africa is politics dominated by an entrenched elite class as in Ivory Coast and Kenya; and nowhere in Africa is politics as corrupt and ethnic-based as it is in those two countries.

Once one group of elites from a given ethnic community is in power, it indulges in a spree of anarchical grabbing of public resources. But this creates self reinforcing fears and temptations: The group in power will seek to accumulate as much as possible before they can lose it. The excluded elites now try to get power by hook or crook. But it would be wrong to imagine that this is to serve the ordinary person. It is to take their turn at the loot. This in economics is called the “tragedy of the commons.”

When the stakes are that high, so are the risks. The costs of losing power are big; so the incentive is to hold it at all costs.”

Governments of national unity or power-sharing are, according to Mwende, only a temporary solution, as they offer the chance to the different ethnic groups to get their chance of looting. The only way out from this “tragedy of the common” is a military victory of one side over the other.

“If you get a military victory by one side, you have the best chance of producing a more effective government. This is because military victory tends to destroy the loser’s organisation. As a consequence, the winner is able to mount relatively unified action and pursue meaningful reform without generating significant and destructive contestations from entrenched interests within the society.”


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sabine Nguini permalink
    March 26, 2011 1:32 am

    While I agree with the general concept of the tragedy of the commons and its application to the Ivory Coast situation, I think it is a simplified explanation to very complex issues. Certainly power (political and economic), ethnicity and other factors are explanations to why leaders – and not just African ones – have a hard time letting go. However, the concept is very often abused in that becomes an excuse for everything: it justifies the undermining of African politics, and the permanent involvement of the West in local politics.

    One thing that I have learned from Keen’s complex emergencies’ course is that nothing is black or white, but more like grey. Religion, ethnicity, and economic power are very obvious explanations to the Ivorian stalemate, but if we are to resolve this stalemate, we must understand that there is much more to it – a long history of opposition between the North and South (not just for the reasons mentioned above) and an ugly competition and issues of pride between two individuals. Those are only some other explanations, and it will be interesting to approach the Ivorian conflict from a non-tragedy of the commons’ perspective.


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