Presidential campaign began on Friday in Côte d’Ivoire amid great expectations and deep concerns. After eight years of armed conflict that led the country to split into two, hopes of a return to civil peace are high.
It is the dawn of a new era in the west African country as 5, 725, 720 potential voters in the Ivory Coast line up to collect their new identity and electoral cards. Not once in the last five years has Côte d’Ivoire come so close to the presidential elections after an incalculable number of postponements. Analyzing the situation during a conference in Paris, last Friday, Ms. Dominique Bangoura, a political science professor at CERAP Abidjan, based her arguments on three main issues: security, defence, and the restoration of State authority throughout the country.
Whilst the authorities claim that the elections will be safe, the situation within the Ivorian army is questionable. An arms embargo passed in 2004 and renewed in 2008 by the United Nations has significantly weakened the country’s capacity of maintaining law and order within its boundaries. As some 8000 men, as well as troops from the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), get ready to provide security for the electoral process, some have called for an easing of sanctions.
Nonetheless, the creation of a new national army, based on parity, will be eagerly awaited. The country has two distinct and polarized defence forces: the loyalist army, affiliated to President Laurent Gbagbo, on the one hand, and the rebel group’s Forces Nouvelles on the other. The Ouagadougou Accords, signed in 2007 between President Laurent Gbagbo and Burkina Faso president, Blaise Compaore, has already made some headway. First of all, soldiers who expressed their desire to integrate the new national defence structure have had to disarm. And the creation of four joint command zones (ComZones) has reduced any eventual threat posed by the Forces Nouvelles in the northern part of the country which has been under rebel control. These ComZones have gradually received some 5000 members of the Forces Nouvelles, who are expected to fully integrate the future national army.
Restoring state authority has become the most crucial bet ahead of the electoral process. How will the future Ivorian president’s new powers be perceived around the country and among all Ivorians? In a divided country, the question is worth asking. The northern part of Côte d’Ivoire has, in fact, been controlled by the former rebel group, Forces Nouvelles (FN) since a failed coup in September 2002, against President Laurent Gbagbo. The situation in northern Côte d’Ivoire has fragmented power and allowed some rebel elements to acquire power and hegemony. And to what extent are these new barons prepared to relinquish their power? Will the man chosen to lead the country have the means to control them? According to Paolo Sannella, president of the Center for Research on state formation in Africa and former Italian ambassador in Abidjan (2000-2005), “the state lacks the means to secure the country after the elections.”
Critics have questioned the authority of the Independent Electoral Commission. Here, a worrying parallel with the turmoil which is currently being suffered by Guinea’s independent electoral commission can be drawn. Months after a first round election, Guineans are still waiting to return to the polls to vote for their president. Analysts argue that the number of Ivorian voters could eventually be used to challenge the election results. Out of 120, 000 Ivorians in France alone, for example, only 16 000 were registered to vote.
But above all, the responsibility of politicians will be the decisive element. If there is to be a return to civil peace, it is important that democratic institutions be respected and the candidates ready to accept the election results. But while all the candidates have expressed their readiness to respect and accept the election outcome, Paolo Sannella remains skeptical. For him there is “no guarantee”: “with all the money they spent, how could they accept defeat?”
The international community has a role to play. Paolo Sannella emphasizes “the importance of support,” whatever the winner. Following the 2000 elections, the European Union suspended its cooperation with Côte d’Ivoire for two years. The pending election is vital for this very important country to get back on its feet in African and international affairs.