Abdul Tejan-Cole: Lesson to Africa in aftermath of Ivory Coast elections

ON 2 December, the Ivory Coast's Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of last month's presidential election with 54.1 per cent of the vote.

The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, gained 45.9 per cent. The US, the European Union, Canada, and the United Nations secretary-general all congratulated Mr Ouattara and called on Mr Gbagbo to respect the people's will.

A day after the result was announced, the country's Constitutional Council, led by Mr Gbagbo's close ally Paul Yao N'Dre, annulled the results from seven departments in the north, declaring Mr Gbagbo the winner of the election with 51 per cent of the vote. The decision, reached in less than 24 hours, left many Ivorians flabbergasted.

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The UN Special Envoy for Cte d'Ivoire Choi Young-jin was categorical, stating: "The proclamation of the final results by the president of the Constitutional Council… which makes candidate Laurent Gbagbo the winner of the second round, can only be interpreted as having no factual basis."

Mr Choi declared that even if the irregularities alleged by Gbagbo were confirmed, Ouattara still would have won the election.

Within 48 hours of the CEI's announcement, both candidates swore themselves in as president. Ouattara went a step further, naming a prime minister and a 13-member cabinet.

Gbagbo's refusal to accept defeat has met with a remarkable international rebuke. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned any attempt to "usurp the popular will of the people of Cte d'Ivoire" and appealed to all to accept the results declared by the electoral commission.

The ECOWAS chair, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, called on all parties to "respect and fully implement the verdict of the Ivorian people as declared by the Independent Electoral Commission."

US President Barack Obama congratulated Mr Ouattara, and said the world would "hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable."

The African Union's Peace and Security Council expressed the AU's categorical rejection of any attempt to undermine the electoral process. The AU also sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Burkina Faso's former minister for national security, Djibril Bassol, who helped broker the Ouagadougou Agreement between then President Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro a decade ago.

Sending Mbeki shows the AU's serious engagement, but it should not lead to a compromise that thwarts the wishes of a majority of Ivorians. In recent years an unfortunate trend has emerged in African politics: losing candidates unleash violence until the only option for mediators is to grant them a continued role in government. The voters' will is subordinated to the need to end the chaos.

As mediator for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mbeki helped broker the deal between Morgan Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe remained president and Tsvangirai – who won 47 per cent of the vote in the March 2008 elections, compared with Mugabe's 43 per cent – became prime minister. Their forced partnership has been plagued by disagreement and dysfunction.

It is not far-fetched to imagine Gbagbo hopes to convert his loss at the polls into a similar pact with Ouattara. His continued participation in government would be portrayed as a route to peace.

This forced hand – presented as a legitimate option – is nothing short of blackmail. It is vital that Africa and the international community take a stand against such strategies – not only to defend the votes of Ivorians, but as a signal to others that legitimate electoral results must be respected.

The continent took considerable pride in the successful 2010 election and in Ivorian voters' courageous and disciplined behaviour. What Gbagbo and his supporters are doing constitutes a coup d'tat. They are holding their fellow citizens hostage, bringing the region into disrepute, and, above all, risking a renewed armed conflict. It is time to end this impunity.

• Abdul Tejan-Cole is Africa regional director of the Open Society Institute.