>By Dimpho Motsamai
At a press briefing in Pretoria on 21 January, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma broke his silence on the current situation in Côte d’Ivoire. At the briefing that concluded a two-day state visit by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, president Zuma indicated that ‘there were some discrepancies in the manner in which the [Ivorian] election had come to the final pronouncement of the vote.’
He also described calls for incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo to be forced out of power as counterproductive. Zuma’s statement follows widespread criticism regarding South Africa’s alleged reticence to publicly engage on the political stalemate in Côte d’ivoire, following the November 28 disputed presidential election results.
South Africa’s public stance on the matter has been labelled as rather ambivalent, compared to the swift and firm response from the African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN), the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); who have explicitly supported Allasane Ouattara’s electoral victory. Indeed, Gbagbo’s refusal to transfer power to Ouattara has been widely condemned across Africa, with the exception of a few countries such as Ghana and Angola, which in fact sent official representation to Gbagbo’s swearing-in ceremony.
Conversely, South Africa’s response seems to be more conciliatory towards Gbagbo. A first statement released on 4 December 2010 simply noted the government’s acknowledgement of the political events in that country and its consideration of the outcomes of the AU Peace and Security Council discussion before pronouncing its position. The second statement released on 9 December followed Côte d’Ivoire’s suspension from both the AU and ECOWAS. In it, Pretoria called for restraint, national reconciliation and unity; and urged Gbagbo to respect and abide by the declaration issued by ECOWAS and the AU. Some observers have labelled this as ‘free-riding’ and an abdication of South Africa’s leadership role and responsibilities on the continent. Meanwhile, both the AU and ECOWAS have engaged in extensive mediation efforts, which have yielded little results – a situation that informs ECOWAS’ decision to threaten military action as an option of last resort. Thus, Nigeria, the current chair of ECOWAS and the lead nation in West Africa, is pushing for UN Security Council backing for an eventual ECOWAS military intervention in Cote d’Ivoire, should mediation efforts fail.
To a large extent, support by various governments for Ouattara’s presidency has constituted not only an act of public diplomacy by these governments, but also an expression of foreign policy. This underscores practice of ‘good international citizenship’, which seeks to moderate the struggle for power by promoting rule-based governance. The lack of an unambiguous public stance on the matter by the South African government is seen to be influenced by Pretoria’s perceived invocation of a certain kind of pan-African solidarity and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries. Another assumption is that Pretoria is forsaking moral concerns for possible political and commercial interests, or lacking the bureaucratic capacity, expertise and willingness to effectively deal with the matter.
Why South Africa’s position matters has for the most part, raised important questions on the diplomatic conduct of lead or hegemonic states; assumptions on the link between preponderant power and the provision of order and stability; and the impact of SA’s public diplomacy on conflict mediation. The scrutiny on South Africa is primarily attributed to shared expectations of the country as a capable lead nation; a democratic ‘norm entrepreneur’; as well as its reputational attributes as a peace broker in African conflicts. In other words, Pretoria is expected to be at the forefront in promoting rule based democratic norms on the continent, as articulated in its foreign policy, and for it to duly communicate this where South Africa’s foreign policy plays out. The media continues to be an arena of antagonism and fierce competition for influence and public support in Côte d’Ivoire and the broader international community. However, Pretoria has been cautious on the use of this strategic instrument or so called ‘mega diplomacy’ which would entail engaging in dialogue and sending messages through the media to other parties in the conflict.
While there are varied understandings as to what a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ message is and the circumstances where such messages might have an impact on conflict, there are policy implications to South Africa’s approach. South Africa initially missed an opportunity to effectively communicate with its domestic and foreign publics on its policy and motivations. But South Africa seems to be in a dilemma regarding its role as a conflict mediator, both in the AU and the UN. The challenges of adopting the conventional position in the immediate aftermath of the conflict were twofold. Firstly, there was a need to demonstrate impartiality based on South Africa’s experience as a conflict mediator in Cote d’ivoire between 2004 and 2006. The Forces Nouvelles former rebels had rejected South African mediation, on the basis of its report to the UN Security Council, putting the blame for the faltering peace process squarely on the shoulders of the rebels. Secondly, ECOWAS and AU-led mediation are still in progress, although the impasse continues. By the time the second statement was released, Gbagbo was largely marginalized politically. Therefore, a diplomatic move that could potentially severe or strain official lines of communication between South Africa and Laurent Gbagbo was undesirable. Moreover, the fact that Gbagbo seems to have some real support among his ethnic group and others in the south, cannot be overlooked in an overall mediation approach.
The situation in Cote d’ivoire is escalating, arguably, in spite of and because of diplomatic rhetoric. Political hammering from key actors in the international community persist, and UN special advisers are publicly raising concerns about human rights violations and the possibility of the beginning of genocide.
Moreover, the fact that the current chair of SADC, Angola – a key bilateral partner and SA’s anchor state – is allegedly providing military and financial support to the Gbagbo camp has further raised questions about Pretoria’s willingness to “rein in” the country and enforce acquiescence to democratic norms. In light of president Eduardo Dos Santos’ state visit to South Africa from 13- 15 December 2010, the dominant perception is that SA’s chosen anchor states are to primarily serve the national interest. Angola’s relationship with Gbagbo is indeed important for the resolution of the conflict in Cote d’ivoire, and Pretoria cannot be impervious to these realities. In fact, AU mediator Raila Odinga is reported to have already held talks with the leaders of Angola and South Africa last week, to nudge them into taking a firm stance in ending Gbagbo’s rule. Angola is increasing being labelled as the weak partner in AU unity regarding the Ivorian political stalemate.
As the continent braces for some 20 presidential and legislative elections in 2011 with some in the SADC region, peace and security will increasingly become an important centrepiece of SA’s foreign policy in 2011. Demonstrating capacity to act decisively on these matters will ascertain South Africa’s role as important African state, both in the AU and in the context of its push for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
A better communications strategy that indeed informs and influences foreign publics, and reduces the degree of misperceptions and misunderstandings of its actions is required. Ultimately, the positive outcomes of Pretoria’s mediation diplomacy in Cote d’ivoire will be determined by whether its initial approach is embedded in its foreign policy and the extent to which this is incorporated in the evaluation of the consequences of specific policy approaches.
Dimpho Motsamai is a researcher in the African Conflict Prevention Program of the Institute for Security Studies.