Zimbabwe will test the resolve shown after Ivory Coast's poll

In January 2000, Brussels-based diplomats returned to the Belgian capital and European Union seat of power after the Christmas break.

As was customary, they huddled in bars and coffee shops, wined and dined each other, and visited each others’ homes trading news from home.

This time, however, there was one dominant item on everyone’s lips: the Christmas Eve coup in Ivory Coast. In the news-drought period, this had been the world’s focal point.

Everyone wanted to dine the Ivorian diplomats so they could glean some tidbits to send back to their respective capitals. Alas, they were to be disappointed. The Ivorians, least of all the ambassador, had no tidbits to share.

Upon arriving in Ivory Coast, the ambassador had headed straight to his home town in the hinterland. There he had delighted his relatives with gifts from Europe, made merry with the local folk and partaken in seasonal worship. When his time was up, he got on the first plane back to Belgium without stopping off in Abidjan to catch the capital’s political pulse.

Had it not occurred to him to hang around and establish the agenda of the new regime, the other diplomats wanted to know?

Nope, he was just interested in getting back to Brussels and getting on with his job, he answered.

The goings on in Abidjan were inconsequential to him. As they were to most of his fellow Ivorians.

In the Ivorian countryside, government was something far away that they had learnt to live without. They simply got on with their lives, traded with each other and bemoaned the uselessness of the rulers in Abidjan. Government, like in many parts of Africa, was a burden and a hindrance rather than an enabler. The less contact with this monster, the better.

But inasmuch as Africans would like to ignore governments, it is impossible to do so. In Ivory Coast, the post-coup contestation for power resulted in great instability and within two years, (and another coup later) a civil war.

This caused much pain and suffering among Ivorians. Theirs had once been a stable country, under Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s benevolent and narcissistic dictatorship. West Africa’s most stable country became its albatross at a time when the likes of Liberia and Sierra Leone were on the road to peace.

Ivory Coast is now back there this Christmas, exactly 10 years since that coup. Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refuses to accept the result of a democratic contest in which the electorate said clearly that it wants his rival, Alassane Ouattara, to rule.

Corpses line the streets. Civil war looms again. The holidaying diplomats are most likely avoiding Abidjan.

True to form, our continent’s leaders initially spoke sweetly to Gbagbo and tried to explain to him that it would really be a nice idea to accept the outcome of a democratic election.

The script was sounding depressingly predictable. The next step would be a protracted negotiation in which the recalcitrant incumbent would be rewarded for stepping away from civil war – but not down from power. The result was going to be a government of national unity in which the election thief was going to be the senior partner.

But the continent’s leaders sprung a surprise, moving swiftly to suspend Ivory Coast from the African Union "until the democratically elected President Alassane Ouattara takes power". The Economic Community of West African States trading bloc also suspended the country, recognised Ouattara’s victory and pooh-poohed the idea of a GNU.

"Elections have been held and somebody has won, so he has to take over. The votes of the people must count," Nigerian president and Ecowas chairman Goodluck Jonathan said after a heads of state meeting.

Kenya’s Prime Minster Raila Odinga, who was himself short-changed by African leaders’ tolerance for bad behaviour a few years ago, spoke for most Africans when he said Gbagbo should be "forced out, even if it means by military force, to get rid of him".

"This is rape of democracy. In an electoral process there must be winners and losers," Odinga said.

It may be too early to start trumpeting the end of Africa’s acceptance of stolen elections. Gbagbo had hardly made many good friends in the upper echelons of African power. He was not one of the big boys on the continent. It was therefore not difficult for leaders to take a stand against him.

But Africa’s stand against the "rape of democracy" was a milestone and an important break with the past. It was a break with the pattern of appeasement of men who like to smear super-glue on their presidential chairs.

Next year, Africa’s resolve will be put to the test when Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe forges ahead with his plans to hold elections. Mugabe will do his utmost to steal the election. Will Africa have the cojones to do to him as it has to Gbagbo? If not, the AU and other structures will remain as irrelevant to the lives of Africans as the governments who rule them. – Times Live