Outside/In: What Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal Can Teach Us About Leaving Office Gracefully

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Ambika: Welcome to the third edition of our podcast series for Outside/In: international perspectives on governance challenges in the United States. Today, I’ll be speaking to Marc-André Boisvert, research manager at Global Integrity and my co-French wine drinker. He was a correspondent for AP for two years in Cote d’Ivoire after living in West Africa for ten years covering multiple post-electoral crises, coups, and conflicts for Montréal-based daily, La Presse, the Economist, France 24, and Reuters. Marc-André just finished his PhD on the military armed group and governance in Mali and has been studying for several years on the political violence in West Africa. He is currently working at Global Integrity on the African Integrity Indicators, a data set aimed at evaluating governance in practice.

Marc-André, welcome. You often describe yourself as having been born into an electoral crisis. Can you tell our audience what you mean?

Marc-André: It came out to me really recently that I’m actually a pure product of political crisis. As a journalist and as a researcher, I always tend to step back on who I am and forget it. For more than twenty years, I forget where this comes from. But I’m from French Canada so I’m from Quebec, and for many people who don’t know what happened, for many years we had a long post-electoral crisis and the fact that Quebec wanted to separate from the rest of Canada. My father worked for the no, my mother worked for the yes, a lot of tensions and this lasted my entire life. Then I moved to West Africa forgetting about this background. I spent most of my life dealing with families with strong disagreements and over fifty years of debates about what should we do.

Ambika: I wanted to ask you, you actually moved to Cote d’Ivoire right during the 2010 electoral crisis there, can you tell us a little bit about what that was like and what that electoral crisis was specifically addressing?

Marc-André: What is really important to understand from this crisis is that it’s basically a poll where the incumbent president appeared to have lost the elections and refused to concede. There were many months of violence. Finally, the current president was able to step in and come into power. One of the issues pf this crisis is that it’s coming at the end of more than a decade of crisis in Cote d’Ivoire where there’s been several elections that were deemed fraudulent. There was a coup in 1999. It’s been a long series of electoral crises accumulated in a lot of violence for the people that are following the actualities and the news.

Ambika: I’m curious, what do you think from your experiences in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali are sort of the things we should be watching out for in terms of electoral crises?

Marc-André: What is really clear from all those the crises I’ve covered in West Africa, it’s just like an electoral crisis starts the day after an election, that’s when everybody agrees on it. What’s happening right now, what happened in 2010-11, was just a lot of issues that were not solved in the previous elections and that people just wanted to move on and didn’t fully understand what’s going to happen if you don’t solve the underlying issues under the elections.

This has been the history of Cote d’Ivoire, and what they didn’t manage to deal with in 2010-11, well, today they have to deal with. It’s becoming another violent electoral crisis. This is one of the first rules, when the incumbent concedes that he lost the election, this is the first day of the next electoral crisis if nobody jumps in and take action to really solve the crisis.

Ambika: What do you think in terms of what we’re seeing around the country right now, especially because we’re so polarized in terms of both urban areas and rural areas? What else do you think we should watch out for? I know that especially in West Africa, a lot of crises affect certain areas much more than others.

Marc-André: This is one of the problems. A lot of the electoral crises, a lot of the action that we focus on, especially as journalists or as researchers, we often focus on the capital. Usually what’s happening in the capital at least in the big, urban areas, is often the most epic, the most, in terms of images, it’s often the most powerful ones. But the real problems are occurring in the rural areas. This is quite common with all post-electoral crises.

If you look at the one also happening in Guinea right now, one that has been ongoing for a long time, often in the rural areas the real issue behind the power is not necessarily just electing a president. There are many other issues about land division, about competition for resources, that often politicians address poorly. This is where the most violent post-electoral crises are happening. Often, we just forget about those dynamics because of the story from the capital. The story of getting to the presidential palace is sexier, but the real division among people is often outside of the urban areas, at least in West Africa.

Ambika: That makes sense and I appreciate you watching out for us. I know there were several court challenges in Cote d’Ivoire as well and we’re sort of just about to get into the brink of that here with a lot of legal crises with Trump and his cohort in the White House. I’m personally very worried about that. Based on what you’ve experienced in West Africa, what should we expect to happen here and what should we be watching out for?

Marc-André: This is the ultimate test of the institution. One of the things when I’m talking to Americans, when I bring my perspective, is that the ultimate argument is seeing that the Americans institutions are much stronger than the ones in West Africa. In every case that I’ve seen, whether it’s politicized or not, the institutions are often like- do they have the legitimacy to fully fulfill this? If we transfer it to the debate in the U.S. right now, we have to ask ourselves, no matter what’s going on with the Supreme Court, will the majority of Americans extend to their institution and see them as legitimized? This is problem with West Africa. It didn’t matter at the end of the day in the many electoral crises, what the justice said, because people would just see them as not a relevant actor in the discussion.

Ambika: Do you have any examples of positive case studies or examples that might give us some hope of where we could be moving forward?

Marc-André: I think there’s two cases I can bring here. The first one, it was one of the most interesting elections I’ve covered in my entire life. It was in Senegal in 2012 when the incumbent president decided to get into elections to get a third mandate. This is actually illegal to get a third mandate in Senegal. What happened is that he changed the constitution. There was a way that constitutionally he could go for a third mandate, because there was a new constitution. Therefore, it’s not actually a historic mandate. It’s playing with the words, but no matter what, it was not necessarily the most ethical thing to do. He decided to go for a third mandate. He’s this old guy, an old historical political figure who’s really fought against the previous regime, so when he came into power, he was seen as this liberator, as a newcomer. Even if he was quite old.

When we left, we all thought that he would cheat the elections, that everything will come true. At the end of the day, the first score of the election happened, and we thought there would not be any runoff- but there was a runoff. I remember the press conference he did, and it was heartbreaking because you could see an old man just realizing that he might lose. His perception of reality might be challenged. Then he lost. On the night of the runoff of the election, we understood that he lost. At night he called the opponent. It was a really short moment, but nobody believed he would call his opponent to congratulate, to say, listen you won the election. One of the things that made this possible and this is what I found really amazing, is how the Senegalese were really committed to the electoral outcome. One of the ways they did this was that all the votes were counted. People will show up in the polls to see the count. That’s the first thing. Everybody saw that the process was fair, but it also meant that people were there to accept. And this is where it really mattered and what changed the dynamic of this legalization. It’s how local people, local initiatives brought people together. This is one of the main things.

The second example, coming back to where I’m from, and I essentially forgot about this until really recently, about all this post-separation issues in Quebec and how my entire life I’ve seen my family having harsh debate about it, at the end of the day, the way we got through this was mostly by continuing to talk about it. Not just locking yourself in a bubble and refusing to accept the other voice. Also, having really concrete actions in terms of political engagement and getting involved. There’s a whole generation of young Quebecers who got involved in politics. Quebec is often seen as having a really explosive social scene with a lot of strikes, but this comes from it. People take their issues on the ground, but they don’t do it necessarily on just as a protest, they do it as a discussion. We need to discuss that, and I want to get involved in it- and that has changed the dynamic. Compared to our parents who struggled to get involved in the political scene.

Ambika: I love that. That actually leaves me on a very hopeful note, and we are very attuned to what’s going to be happening in the U.S. I know that we can actually look outside ourselves frequently, to other countries as examples of how to move forward. We appreciate you framing that for us. Thank you again.

Marc-André: You’re welcome.

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Marc-André Boisvert
Research Manager

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