On the face of it the solution to the political stand-off in Ivory Coast is a government of national unity. The elections there have been won, international observers say, by the opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara. But the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to stand down. Both men have had themselves sworn in as president.
The initial response from outsiders was forthright. African neighbours called on Mr Gbagbo to stand down. So did the international community. There has been mediation by the African Union (AU) and moves for sanctions from the United Nations.
It is a disconcertingly familiar tale. In Kenya in 2007 and in Zimbabwe in 2008 presidents Kibaki and Mugabe lost elections but clung to power. Each time the AU failed to uphold its own policies on leaders who fail to relinquish power. And the international community, after huffing and puffing, suggested a power-sharing government which allowed a discredited president to cling to power.
It is a short-term solution to instability and violence. In Ivory Coast, 200 people have been killed or have disappeared, and there are reports of mass graves. In Kenya, 1,000 people died and 300,000 were driven from their homes. There was widespread violence after Zimbabwe's 2008 sham election. Calm returned to Kenya and Zimbabwe after unity governments were formed, yet in both countries the real political problems have remained unresolved. Ruling groups have refused to co-operate with domestic or international inquiries into the election violence. They have blocked prosecutions. In both, corruption has continued with merely a more democratic distribution of the spoils.
And almost nothing has been done to address the causes of the widespread violence. On land reform, constitutional change, youth unemployment and ethnic tensions, progress in Kenya has been painful. In Zimbabwe, the Zanu-PF party, which never had any intention of sharing real power, has blocked reform of the military and intelligence services. Instead, Mugabe's military cronies have secured independent funding through control of the Chiadzwa diamond fields.
There is a similar papering over the cracks about the unity government in Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai. There, Western officials worry that corruption in the Karzai regime is an obstacle to stable self-government. Yet they have to pretend otherwise publicly because progress towards a drawdown of US and UK forces is the top priority.
In Africa, unity government has had some small successes. Control of Zimbabwe's finance ministry by the Movement for Democratic Change has banished hyperinflation and cut out a big source of Zanu-PF patronage. In Kenya the return of stability has seen a growing independence among judges and the return of some confidence among Kenya's business class and outside investors, though economic growth is still not back at pre-violence levels.
But in Zimbabwe, human rights abuses against political activists are on the increase again. No mechanisms have been put in place to guarantee that the country will not be plagued by violence in the next round of elections, which could happen this year. The main activity of Kenya's political class is jockeying for position before elections in 2012.
Unity governments may bring immediate peace but they produce political deadlock. Voters become despondent and feel that real change will never come. In Ivory Coast that could even produce the eventual secession of the northern half of the country, splitting the world's leading cocoa producer in half. It is not a prospect to be welcomed for that nation, for Africa, or for the rest of the world.Reuse content