Elections aimed at stabilising Ivory Coast bring chaos
By Michael Logan Dec 3, 2010, 16:32 GMT
Nairobi/Abidjan - Presidential elections meant to put Ivory Coast back on track eight years after a civil war split the north and south are threatening to tear the West African nation further apart.
A peaceful election would have been a sign that the country - the world's largest cocoa grower and previously one of Africa's strongest economies - had put behind it nearly a decade of ruinous civil war, conflict and coup attempts.
Ivory Coast has been in crisis since 2002 when President Laurent Gbagbo, a 65-year-old history professor who came to power in the wake of violent demonstrations at the 2000 elections, survived an attempt to depose him.
That failed coup sparked a brief civil war, which divided the country into the government-controlled, mainly Christian, south, and the Muslim-majority, rebel, north.
While presidential polls were delayed six times since Gbagbo's term officially expired in 2005, Ivory Coast struggled through, and a 2007 peace deal brought the rebels into government.
But the fault lines lurking beneath the surface have been cruelly exposed by Sunday's poll.
All land, sea and air borders were sealed, and foreign radio and television stations taken off the air on Thursday evening as Gbagbo clamped down in the wake of victory for the north's candidate Alassane Ouattara.
The electoral commission, which missed a Wednesday deadline for announcing a winner as Gbagbo supporters disputed the results, proclaimed Ouattara the winner with 54 per cent of the vote.
But Paul Yao N'Dre, head of the constitutional council, said the electoral commission did not have the right to make any such announcement after missing its deadline.
The council is now examining votes from several regions in Ouattara strongholds, which Gbagbo asked to be annulled because of what he claimed was harassment and intimidation of his supporters. Ouattara has also alleged fraud in Gbagbo's favour.
The fear now is that N'Dre, a close ally of Gbagbo, could overturn the result by striking off regions that would have overwhelmingly backed Ouattara, or that a stalemate is in the offing.
Both scenarios carry the threat of bloodshed.
'There is a real risk that Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) could be heading for a serious civil and political crisis,' Rolake Akinola, a West Africa analyst at political risk firm Eurasia Group, told the German Press Agency dpa. 'If we reach a situation where there is deadlock or stalemate, we could see violence break out.'
Clashes between rival supporters and the military have already blighted the poll, with more than a dozen deaths. In the latest incident, the army shot dead four people Wednesday at one of Ouattara's offices in the economic capital, Abidjan.
The two candidates stand accused of inflaming their supporters. During campaigning, Gbagbo accused Ouattara of being behind the 2002 attempt to depose him, while Ouattara called Gbagbo's rise to power through violent demonstrations a coup.
In the face of disintegrating elections and widespread violence, the international community is pressuring Gbagbo to accept the result of the poll, which the United Nations said was broadly democratic.
The UN human rights chief and the International Criminal Court said they are closely following the situation, and warned the leaders they could be held to account for any violent acts carried out in their names.
Former colonial master France and the United States are leading the chorus of disapproval, and the UN Security Council warned it would take 'appropriate measures' - code for sanctions - against anyone blocking the electoral process.
Akinola, however, feels sanctions should be a last resort and that independent analysis of the results is needed to circumvent questions over the constitutional court's lack of objectivity.
'We need to get independent, objective bodies to verify and investigate the fraud allegations,' she said. 'We can we reach a compromise and move to a broad-based, inclusive government.'
Ouattara, a 68-year-old former prime minister and International Monetary Fund official, has said his government would draw from a wide spectrum of political parties and civil society.
Many hoped that a peaceful election would restore economic growth in the West African country and begin to heal north-south divisions.
The world's largest cocoa grower had one of Africa's strongest economies in the mid-nineties, but it has been downhill since then. The civil war saw the country plunge into negative growth and foreign investment dry up.
'This presidential election presents Ivorian politicians with a unique opportunity to end a decade of crisis and recurring violence, as well as an unexpected chance to create the conditions for an economic revival that would be important for all West Africa,' the International Crisis Group wrote in an opinion prior to the run-off.
Such a positive outcome looks an increasingly distant prospect.