Friday, April 8, 2011

Laurent Gbagbo

Laurent Gbagbo, currently under siege in his presidential bunker, was once the great hope for democracy in the Ivory Coast. An activist who went to jail for opposing the dictator of those days, he fought hard for the freedom of his people. Former colleague Venance Konan reflects:

But look at Mr. Gbagbo now: Soundly defeated at the polls last November after a decade as president, he refused to concede, plunging Ivory Coast into chaos. Those who protested were tortured and killed; his soldiers fired on gatherings of women and shelled a market, killing dozens. It’s only now, after United Nations and French troops have intervened and he has been besieged in his home, that he may be prompted to give up his hold on power.

How did the man who was once seen as the father of Ivorian democracy turn to tyranny? Was it the corruption of power? The intoxication of going from having nothing to everything all at once? Only a year before he was elected president, in 1999, I remember him denouncing Slobodan Milosevic, saying: “What does Milosevic think he can do with the whole world against him? When everyone in the village sees a white loincloth, if you are the only person to see it as black, then you are the one who has a problem.” But in the space of 10 years, he became deluded by power, a leader whose only ambitions were to build palaces and drive luxurious cars.

After last fall’s election, Mr. Gbagbo and his wife, Simone, refused to accept the results, in part because they had become evangelical Christians, and their pastors convinced them that God alone could remove them from power. Every day on state TV, fanatical clergymen called Mr. Gbagbo God’s representative on earth, and the winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara, the Devil’s.

More prosaically, Mr. Gbagbo and his cronies — guilty, among other crimes, of stealing from the public coffer — fear being brought to justice before an international tribunal, so much so that they have decided to hold on to power no matter the cost. The fear of losing everything can make a dictator, even one who once was a champion of democracy, lose his mind.

I suppose corruption might play a part, but I think the deeper problem is putting the emphasis on the person rather than the act. We like to think in terms of people and their characters, rather than particular actions or institutions. We want to know whether people are good or bad, and if they are good we are willing to forgive dubious acts we would condemn in a person we consider bad. We have an innate distaste of thinking that virtue resides in institutions rather than people. Name, if you can, a movie in which a moral person's fight against the system turns out to be misguided, and proper procedure matters more than right and wrong.

It is natural to think that it is more important for good people to win elections than that they be conducted correctly. We want the best people to be our leaders, do we not? Laurent Gbagbo and his followers believed that he was the best man to lead the Ivory Coast, a man of faith, his virtue tested by imprisonment. Compared to that, they considered the mere result of a single election unimportant.

Serious morality, though, is focused not on the person but the act. One of the deepest truths of Christianity, it seems to me, is that we are all sinners, and that we should condemn the sin rather than blame the sinner. None of us is so virtuous that we do not sometimes do the wrong thing, and when those we admire do something wrong, we should be willing to say so. It is un-Christian for Gbagbo's defenders to say that he must be right because he is God's favorite, because no one is so much in God's favor that he cannot do wrong.

And what is democracy, anyway? It is not a way of promoting goodness, or a guarantee of right government. It is a system of rules for carrying out political conflict without violence. It is procedure as much as a philosophy, a rulebook more than a virtuous path. Many strongly moral people have always seen democratic even-handedness as hateful cynicism, and sometimes the choices of democratic electorates are hard to defend. But the alternative, I submit, is what is happening now in the Ivory Coast. When wicked men win elections, fair and square, we must accept their victories, because ultimately our safeguard against tyranny and civil war is the sanctity of the rules, not the virtue of particular men.

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