A tense excitement spread over Cote D’Ivoire, with crowds of voters already lining up at many of the twenty-thousand polling stations around the country as early as 5am on Sunday, October 31st.
The polling, which was to start at 7am, wound up being delayed in many sites across the country, in some cases for hours as electoral workers waited for a deficient supply of validation stickers to mark each eligible ballot. The delays and long line ups didn’t seem to deter some 81% of registered voters from exercising their constitutional right to vote for the first time in over ten years or from being almost exceptionally peaceful while they did. They waited patiently and eagerly and took each minor setback in stride. The television repeatedly reminded them to be patient and calm, with all the major religious leaders coming together to publicly announce that the candidates should respect the process and not take power without the electoral commission’s authority; and for the people to remain peaceful no matter the results. Ivorian reggae legend Alpha Blondy (who is often described as the “Bob Marley of Africa”) gave a free “Concert for Peace” just minutes from my door three nights before the vote. Even Ivorian soccer stars like Didier Drogba flashed their smiles on the fair play ads that urged peaceful democracy for their country. The candidates and ex-rebel leaders all expressed their desire to accept the winner and move on in peace no matter the results.
Massive brightly coloured billboards lined the highways and streets, advertising for the three main candidates since campaigning opened on October 15th. On the boulevard and bridge crossing the lagoon in Abidjan, the blue, pink and white flags of current President Laurent Gbabgo’s newly formed La Majorite Presidentelle (the Presidential Majority) party waved in the wind. The other eleven candidates usually had smaller posters, mostly in black and white with coloured banners that could be found plastered on posts, cars and walls around the cities. Cell phones were bombarded with texts and pre-recorded messages in the weeks leading up to the election that exclaimed the virtues of each of the main candidates, and the papers were awash with stories of the presidential hopefuls. As I sat in my living room one day over lunch, a flurry of movement outside the window caught my eye. Leaflets were falling from the sky. When they finally reached the ground, I picked one up to see Laurent Gbagbo staring me in the face, informing me that he is “L’homme de la situation” (the man for the job). In the week prior to the vote, crowds of political supporters chanted in the streets, overcrowding the gbaka gbakas (mini buses) dressed in matching shirts and colours, and blaring music as they passed. I could hear them cheering, chanting and jeering well into the nights.
I was nervous for the vote, knowing that in the past, elections and change of leadership here have been marked by violence. Everyone had swarmed the markets in the week prior, stocking up on supplies in case they later had to wait out any violence in the safety of their own home. We anxiously watched the television each day, eagerly awaiting any news that would come; half expecting reports of violence on a daily basis. Thankfully, those reports never came.
The local tv station, Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne (RTI), devoted an hour and a half to each candidate during the week before the election to allow them to discuss their views on the economy, the social situation and their politics in an interview entitled “Facing the Voters”. Much to my surprise (since it was contrary to what I was reading in some international media reports), the interviewers actually asked some pretty tough and hard-hitting questions and were giving what appeared to be equal air time to all the candidates every day. One of the main newspapers to which I subscribe at home, “Fraternatie Matin”, also seemed to be allotting space equally.
Of the fourteen candidates, only Henri Bedie refused to participate in the television interviews, protesting that debates between all the candidates were not organized by the National Broadcasting Council (CNCA) and that current President Gbagbo was given the final slot in the interviews without a lottery to decide the positions. Bedie was also angered, it appeared, to be referred to as Mr. Bedie, and not Mr. President in several of the newscasts on the elections, since he had served a previous term as President before being ousted in a coup in 1999 led by General Robert Guei. Not having debates seemed the wise choice, seeing as the three main candidates have been embroiled in political and armed strife for over a decade, and a face-to-face meeting to discuss issues would surely have brought about aggressive hostility or a violent response in the streets. It seemed that everything was going rather smoothly, barring this one complaint. The coming weeks would demonstrate how difficult overcoming a legacy of violence can be, especially when many of the same violent actors are tenaciously determined to run the show.
Rebecca Sargent writes for the Stand Blog and lives and works in West Africa. You can follow her on Twitter @peaceofconflict