Losing their marbles: Côte d'Ivoire and the Kenyan solution

Two boys face off over a tense game of marbles in a dusty African school yard. The stakes are high. One boy is the reigning Marble King, a pudgy fellow with glittering flashes of the glass treasures bulging from his pockets.
He has had them for a very long time, picking them off of his weaker peers and bullying anyone who dared challenge him.

The other boy is scrawnier, leaner. He is determined to get those marbles. He says he’ll give it back to the rest of the kids. We’re not sure. But it’s better than what they’ve had till now and he has plenty of supporters. A change has been a long time in coming.

It’s the final play—the one that will decide it all. A multicoloured set of “grandfathers”, the grandest marbles, are stacked in a complex pyramid. The smaller boy has just one shot, and with a small and mediocre mini at that. If he takes this, if he wins, the marbles are his. He becomes The Marble King.

The rest of the kids watch breathlessly, desperate for a reprieve from the constant bullying. The reigning marble king’s thugs snigger at the crowd but crack their knuckles, watching the marbles with slit eyes. They shouldn’t be here. They’re too big for this school, this playground, with its scrawny kids and empty lunchboxes. But here they are, instead of out in the world doing whatever it is the strong should be doing.

The marble shoots out, buoyed by the flick from the young boy’s thumb. It whistles through the air, watched by a hundred eyes willing it to the mark. The impossible happens—with one crack the glass house is down, the victory theirs! Hardly believing his luck the winner is borne upon the shoulders of his classmates, ecstatic in their triumph.

A short-lived one. At a signal from the former king, the thugs have sprung into action, sticks in hand. The marbles are forcefully wrestled back and the rules of the game discarded in one fell swoop of self-interest.

In the ensuing chaos of sticks, bruises and fists, those on the side of the winner fight back with the outrage of the wronged.

When things have gotten just about as bloody as possible, the sound of authoritative footsteps is heard. A collective sigh of relief—it’s the teachers, and even the principal. Justice will surely be restored and the true winner vindicated.

But no. Instead, the smaller boy is patted on the head, his wounds tut-tutted over and a handful of marbles handed back to him. Just as he is about to protest, he is told that of course he’s won—they both have. And he’ll get to be co-Marble King. Already his enemy’s thugs have started grinning and cracking their knuckles again.

And so it goes. Another African fight, another Kenyan Solution.

There is no logic behind rewarding the violence of losers. There is only the dangerous precedent we set for those future deposed kings and dictators with a corrupt and violent army at their bidding.

African clichés
Early indications are that this is where the latest horror story of African leadership gone wrong in Côte d’Ivoire, is heading. Already it reads like a cliché. We’ve heard it in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

Right now the powers that be are making the right noises; that the defeated Laurent Gbagbo accept the results of the free and fair election and step down.

In a situation that is farcical if it wasn’t so perilous, two presidents swore themselves into power on Saturday after a disputed election run-off in the West African country on Thursday. Gbagbo held his own inauguration in firm denial of the fact of his defeat, and the absence of just about every ambassador.

Former prime minister Alassane Ouattara may have won the run-off with 54,1% of the vote but a court loyal to the former president overturned the results on Friday.

And the country’s army defended the interests of the big man, as is often the case in a continent where a nation’s army is oblivious to their real responsibility.

If my analogy were more accurate the schoolyard bully’s thugs—the army—would actually be bullying prefects. But even the cruelty of children is never that unjust. They leave that to the adults.

Mbeki: International man of mystery
Meanwhile, the news on Sunday that former South African president Thabo Mbeki has left for Côte d’Ivoire to mediate the crisis can be of no relief to those who believe in justice.

Mbeki has turned into something of an international man of mystery since the dismal end to his political leadership in South Africa in 2007.

Now he jets around the continent being important. So, not terribly different to when he was president then. But he has earned something of a reputation as a Mr Fix-It; the leader other African presidents will listen to mid-tantrum when a Western voice just seems to make things worse.

However, interventions by Mbeki and the African Union across the continent have been less than inspiring. Of course there have been the delicate negotiations and tricky balancing of demands with a successful end to bloodshed. But then there was also the disquieting silence at the violence of Robert Mugabe and others like him.

And this after the WikiLeaks diplomatic briefings showed that Mbeki was probably partial to Mugabe during the mediation with our northern neighbour.

Childish whims
“The most likely outcome from Mbeki’s mediation is a government that does not reflect the will of the voters, as was the case with Zimbabwe,” ran one comment in Zimbabwe NewsDay.

Gbagbo must know, as recent history has proven, that he need only apply a little pressure, up the violence a little more, and his childish whims will be ceded to in some measure.

In Kenya, as in Zimbabwe, defeated presidents were restored to authority in coalition governments after escalating post-election violence.

But the only solution it provides is only a diplomatic one. The bloodshed is put on pause, sure—but at what cost?

A leader loses his marbles and we let him take the rest of us with him down the bottomless pit of insanity. Because yielding to violent rulers and rewarding their childish demands is just that: insanity.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here, and follow her on Twitter here.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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