Mike McGovern, Department of Anthropology, Yale University

As I sat down to write this short piece on Laurent Gbagbo's mundane rendition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for trial as a war criminal (Figure 1), I checked the internet web sites I usually scan for African news. There I found the news that the Pentagon had admitted to having used Charles Taylor as an intelligence operative from the 1980s until some date which it refused to disclose. In one excellent essay [1], a Liberian intellectual suggested that the American individuals and institutions that helped unleash Taylor on Liberia in 1989 should be held legally accountable, just as Taylor and others have been. I was also interested that the first two readers to comment on the article drew direct parallels between Taylor's links to the U.S. government and the situation in Côte d'Ivoire. The first argued that U.S. backing of Alassane Ouattara showed that he, like Taylor, became president of Côte d'Ivoire because he was the one chosen by powerful international actors. The second replied that this claim was ludicrous, and that the 2010 Ivorian elections were a fair representation of the preferences of the Ivorian people.

This vignette captures the polarized positions on the ICC case against Gbagbo and, indeed, the legitimacy of the ICC in general (Figure 2). Seen from Africa, the first questions many ask about the ICC is, "Why have 100% of their indictments been against Africans? Are there no human rights abusers or war criminals in the rest of the world?" The question is, of course, rhetorical, and suggests its own answer: African nations exercise only mitigated sovereignty and thus are often less able to stave off attempts at foreign interference. As the comparison between Taylor and Ouattara suggests, there really are direct comparisons to be made between the meddling of French, American, Belgian, and other mercenaries and spies in the affairs of African states and the imposition of multiparty democracy, open markets, and the human rights regime. They can all be introduced into African countries precisely because their states are weak and permeable, not necessarily because the interventions are warranted.

Does this mean they are unwarranted? I don't think so, and I do feel that there are many good reasons to prosecute actors like Taylor and Milosevic, who have knowingly overseen and organized the destruction of many civilian lives through killing, torture, and rape. I think the international prosecutions of some heads of state will have a deterrent effect in the medium run, though this process is certain to be full of unintended consequences, too. An optimistic part of me believes that the same yardstick will be used to measure the decisions taken in the capitals of countries like the U.S. or France and that the present double standard that applies between rich and poor countries will soon be seen as the hypocrisy it is. However, my position is marginal to two others. There is the position of the human rights believers, who seem not to be that bothered by the hypocritical double standard (or at least do not discuss it much in public). On the other side is the view of an increasing number of African intellectuals, sometimes skeptical, sometimes cynical, that reflects their disgust at the human rights community's opportunistic symbiosis with powerful states and institutions that themselves can be credibly accused of similar abuses.

This has led to a partial rejection of much of the modernist "package" that includes human rights, rule of law, multi-party elections and the like, and it is a critique that most certainly does not just emanate from sycophants and apologists of African autocrats. In this regard, it is telling that while Laurent Gbagbo has many partisan supporters from his political party, those who criticize his ICC indictment go beyond this group to include a far broader pool of francophone intellectuals. Many francophone Africans talk about Gbagbo as a modern-day Lumumba, a resistance hero who has been punished for speaking truth to neo-colonial power. Even those who may feel more ambivalent about Gbagbo, like Cameroonian journalist Henriette Ekwe, note:

But the way [Gbagbo] and his wife were treated [as they were dragged from the rubble of the Presidential Palace], those are images that nevertheless touch Africans a little, and that make one think that Pan-Africanism is more necessary than ever: a real unity in the African Union. Meanwhile, the African Union seems to be under instructions, and to have to do what the West wants. [2]

I do not consider Gbagbo to be a hero, but I do take the criticisms of the ICC and of multiparty elections as significant social and political facts in themselves. The ICC's legitimacy deficit will also have concrete effects on its ability to operate in Côte d'Ivoire and other countries in Africa. This is an area where anthropologists could do important work. Such research and analysis might inaugurate an anthropology of legitimacy, which seems to me a productive lens for trying to understand the intersections of the local and the global, of the discursive and the political-economic that characterize so many of the situations we study today.


[1] Pailey, Robtel Neajai. 2012. "Charles Taylor a CIA Informant—the Need to Retool Nation's Relationship with the U.S." allAfrica, January 20 (accessed May 27, 2012).

[2] RFI (Radio France Internationale). 2011. Henriette Ekwe: “L’Union africaine semble être sous tutelle de l’Occident.” RFI, December 26 (accessed May 27, 2012).

[3] Indepth Africa. 2011. Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo Appears before ICC. InDepthAfrica Magazine, December 5 (accessed May 27, 2012).

[4] BBC. 2012. The International Criminal Court: What You Need to Know. BBC NewsAfrica, March 28 (accessed May 27, 2012).