The year is ending as so many have before it, with an African nation in crisis, a sitting President refusing to budge and the outside world deciding whether they should intervene militarily to unseat him (it is always "him", of course).
It's easy to wring your hands and say of the Ivory Coast, as so many other African countries, that it is a tragedy wrought by politics on a country that was, and ought still to be, one of the most economically successful in its region. Easier, too, for those outside Africa to demand, or at least wish for, the regional association of West Africa, Ecowas, to step in to sort the mess out for themselves.
But international affairs, as we ought to know by now, is never that simple. Each occasion has its own specific context which outsiders meddle with at their peril. The situation in the Ivory Coast isn't just a matter of a dictator refusing to accept the democratic will of its people (as indeed President Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe, just as the military government does in Burma).
This is certainly what the UN and most other African states feel after an election which saw the opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, win 54 per cent of the vote. And the sitting tenant, Laurent Gbagbo, fits the bill of a man who will do everything to cling on to power. Elected originally in 2000 for five years, he has wheeled and dealed, procrastinated and tricked his way to delaying new elections until last October.
Now, having lost the November run-off in a vote which UN observers judged was fair, he claims it was all distorted by vote-rigging in the north and has sought and gained the authority of the Constitutional Council (chaired by an ally) for his claim to be the true winner. The man constitutionally voted out of power is co-opting the constitution to hang on to it.
If this were just a constitutional question, it could – however grudgingly – be sorted out through the courts, as George W Bush's disputed election in the US presidentials was in 2000. But it isn't. It's a struggle for power in a country that has a history of bitter divisions within the country, between north and south.
Ouattara, an IMF economist, is a Muslim from the north. Laurent Gbagbo is a historian and union leader from the south. Divisions between the regions brought the country to a prolonged and bitter civil war in 2002, only ended by the intervention of French troops and forces from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (Ecomog) and by an unexpected coalition government between Gbagbo and his chief enemy, the leader of the northern forces, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro.
The hope this time was that a democratic election could resolve the differences with a new government that could use its popular mandate to bring the country together. But elections, as we know from Iraq to Kyrgyzstan, are as apt to exacerbate divisions as resolve them. Gbagbo has the support of the army and he has the threat of unleashing civil war again if he is attacked. Ouattara has the backing of Ecowas and the north, but has few tanks of his own.
The favoured solution of the UN, as it was when it approved Gbagbo's continuation in power past his mandated five years, is to try and get some kind of power-sharing agreement, in which Gbagbo steps down in return for a continued position in government. It's what has been tried in Zimbabwe. But that has only achieved the most tenuous success. Like Mugabe, Gbagbo will hold out so long as he feels he has the forces of the state behind him.
Military intervention by Ecowas, which seems to be what most in the West want (provided it is carried out by the Africans themselves) remains very problematic. Although Ecowas has sent troops into West African countries in the past and has a brigade on standby to do so again, its members (some of whom face early elections themselves) are far from keen on foreign entanglements. And then what does it do? Place Ouattara on the presidential throne and keep him there by force of arms, and risk arousing even more factional resentments as a result?
The alternative – and most likely course now, following the visit from three neighbouring presidents this week – is to put the squeeze on Gbagbo to go or co-operate. That is not easy either. General sanctions and isolation can have the opposite effect, as we know from Zimbabwe and Burma, of increasing the power of a sitting president rather than undermining it. More specific sanctions, on financial transactions for example, are difficult to operate and arouse endless ways of evasion.
Plodding on step by step in the hope, but not confidence, that time and pressure will bring some kind of settlement is hardly a noble course. But it's still better than the alternatives. Brave calls for Africans to impose solutions are a lot easier, and more convenient, to pronounce from outside than within.
Don't get your hopes up in the Vatican
The Roman Catholic community, and the Pope himself, have become fearfully overexcited by the perceived "success" of the Papal visit in September, what with the Pontiff's Thought for the Day and an almost-worshipful attitude by the BBC.
I wish they were right but I fear that the relief of the faithful, who had feared the worst before the trip, has induced them to mistake politeness for enthusiasm among the secular majority.
It is precisely because most British people feel so passive about religion that they did not express any great Protestant resentment of a papal state visit, and it is because the country no longer sees itself as a particularly Christian one that they showed courtesy to the guest, rather than respond to his teachings. He is simply not regarded as important enough to be seen as a target for protest any longer.
This was no breakthrough to the liberal European consciousness, as some Roman Catholics here and in the Curia seem to believe. Pope Benedict's problem remains in Catholic Europe as it is in Anglican Britain; how to get the Church to attract new commitment, and indeed new priests, when its behaviour and its teachings are so at variance with a world of women's self-assertion and pluralistic belief.Reuse content