It will be hard to overcome the violence of the past. Many who I have spoke to within the city have expressed their desire to have new leaders entirely and finally be able to move on in peace after these elections. All three main candidates have had a previous political role in Cote D’Ivoire and have also been embroiled in its past violence.
Cote D’Ivoire was once regarded internationally as the most prosperous nation in sub-Saharan Africa, with its economic capital Abidjan labeled as the “Paris of Africa”. For the 33 years following independence in 1960, Cote D’Ivoire had a strong President-dictator in Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who subdued his political rivals by offering them government positions instead of incarceration or death. When he grew gravely ill with prostate cancer in 1990, his Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara (one of the current candidates for Presidency) filled in as administrator. A power struggle soon began between Ouattara and Henri Bedie (another current candidate for Presidency), who as President of the National Assembly believed he was constitutionally decreed to assume power in the absence of the President. A series of coups, civil war and violence then prevailed.
Current President Laurent Gbagbo led a series of student and teacher demonstrations against Houphouet-Boigny throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s and was even twice imprisoned and once exiled for his violence in the streets. Following his return to Cote D’Ivoire in 1988, Gbagbo became the only other candidate to run against Houphouet-Boigny in the 1990 elections. Gbagbo lost, but soon after won a seat in the National Assembly with his earlier formed Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party. Despite a constitutional rule that one can only be elected President for two five-year terms, Gbagbo has already been in the presidential role for most of the last decade and is determined to win another five years in this election. He is able to circumvent the constitution, it seems, as he has never actually been elected as President, but has rather taken power by force. Following a successful 1999 coup led by General Robert Guei against current Presidential candidate and then President Henri Bedie, Gbagbo ran for the Presidency. According to his followers, Gbagbo received some nearly 60% of the vote in that election, however Guei claimed victory and violence ensued. Gbagbo’s FPI revolted in the streets, forcing Guei to flee and eventually be massacred along with his family, allowing Gbagbo to seize power. He has remained there ever since. A 2002 coup attempt against Gbagbo ignited a civil war that fractured the state into north and south divisions, and a temporary unity government was arranged until an election could be held. Gbagbo has successfully delayed the elections repeatedly over the past five years, primarily it was reported because of the stalled disarmament of northern rebels and a lack of identity cards for voters; but many suspected that Gbagbo was strategically waiting until he was certain that elections would maintain his rule.
Alassane Ouattara, a former economist with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), is frequently associated with the rebels of the north, where his base and primary support system lies, and is often suspected of inciting rebellion among the northerners. During his time as PM, Ouattara cut subsidies to farmers (as recommended by the World Trade Organization) while European Union and US farmers were receiving heavy subsidies with devastating results, and on IMF recommendation dismissed more than 10,000 state employees, reduced the salaries of the remaining state employees by 40%, eliminated transportation and basic health care services for students, imposed fees for basic health care services, initiated the devaluation of the currency, aggressively pursued taxes from Lebanese and Mauritian merchants which severely disrupted foreign investment, and allegedly sold off state-owned property to his wife’s clients and friends at severely devalued prices, angering students and workers, including Gbagbo, into rebellion.
Henri Bedie is a former President (1993-99) and leader of the Democratic Party of Cote D’Ivoire- African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA), who now ironically claims he will unite the country from its fractions, lower taxes and restore the economy. Under Bedie, the government began its xenophobic Ivorite (or pure Ivorianess) citizenship policies in an attempt to politically exclude his competition Ouattara from the Presidency, for being the son of Burkinabe parents. The policies effectively resulted in many people from the north of the country being denied national identity papers, passports or being harassed by security forces. The north and the south became effectively divided and in December 1999, the national army staged a successful coup against Bedie, on the pretext of nonpayment of due salaries, while Bedie fled to Togo and then on to Paris. Bedie and Ouattara now form an alliance of sorts, pledging to support the other if either faces Gbagbo in a run-off election.
It’s a difficult choice to make for many Ivorians and most that I have spoken to see this election as a choice between the least evil, and not that of the best candidate for the job. They remain optimistic that their country can soon escape its past and once again become prosperous and peaceful; if only the leaders would respect their countrymen’s desires instead of their personal desire for power.
Rebecca Sargent writes for the Stand Blog and lives and works in West Africa. You can follow her on Twitter @peaceofconflict