Harsh rivals, known faces, and fears as Ivory Coast votes for president

A campaign billboard of a presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara of the ruling RHDP coalition is pictured on the General De Gaule Bridge ahead of the presidential elections in Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Residents of Ivory Coast’s most prominent city Abidjan are stocking up on provisions and sending loved ones to rural villages ahead of a contentious presidential election on Saturday. People fear things could turn violent.

Suzanne Ble, 34, her two young daughters, and a son, were among the hundreds of passengers at a bus station in Abidjan on Tuesday, sitting atop their luggage, waiting to get a ticket.

“I’m taking my family to Toumodi (in the center of the country) because of the political situation. We are afraid that it will degenerate,” Ble said.

Many Ivorians had hoped the 2020 election would help turn the page on a cycle of violence around elections and see President Alassane Ouattara transfer power to a new generation.

Instead, ahead of the vote, citizens of the relatively prosperous but volatile West African nation of 25 million face a familiar set of choices – and fears.

After initially saying he wouldn’t stand for a third term, Ouattara, 78, reversed course when his preferred successor died unexpectedly in July. He argued that a new constitution approved in 2016 reset his two-term limit.

His decision, denounced by opponents as unconstitutional, sparked violent protests and clashes between rival supporters who killed nearly 30 people.

Pro-democracy activists say it also marks a fresh setback for the region after Mali’s military coup in August and Guinea President Alpha Conde’s successful third-term bid earlier this month. [nL8N2FY6AK]

Ouattara’s two primary challengers are veterans of Ivory Coast’s many crises since the 1990s: the 86-year-old former president Henri Konan Bedie and 67-year-old Pascal Affi N’Guessan, a prime minister under Ouattara’s predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat when Ouattara beat him in the 2010 election led to a brief civil war that killed 3,000 people.

“It’s been 10, 15, 20 years that we see some of them,” Francis Ake, a 28-year-old telecommunications worker, said of the candidates as he left church. “We need new people.”

Bedie and Affi have urged their supporters to boycott the electoral process, which they say is rigged. The have called for the vote to be postponed.

Bedie served as president from 1993 to 1999, when he was overthrown in a coup.

A bitter rival of Ouattara, in 1995, his government barred Ouattara from running for president after questioning his nationality, an issue that contributed to later conflicts.

Only 41.5% of registered voters’ identification cards had been picked up as of Monday, the electoral commission said.

With his main rivals boycotting the race, there is little suspense about Ouattara’s likely victory, but significant uncertainty remains about nearly everything else.

Experts and investors say they do not expect an all-out war like the one in 2010 and 2011 since there are no significant splits within the security forces this time.

However, they warn about a potentially protracted stand-off marked by protests, strikes, and ethnic violence that would make it difficult for Ouattara to govern and weigh the world’s top cocoa producer’s economy.

“This is an election that will not produce a true winner,” said Wendy Herve Lankoande, an analyst with International Crisis Group. “The country will be divided and weakened.”

Under Ouattara, Ivory Coast swiftly rebuilt its economy through infrastructure and agriculture investments. GDP growth over his tenure averaged more than 8% before the pandemic.

Critics say the economic benefits have not trickled down to the poor and accuse the president of ignoring the persistent ethnic and regional animosities that led to the country’s de facto partition in 2002 and the war in 2010.

“We were so hungry in 2010,” said nut vendor and mother-of-five Yvette Ouattara, seated in a mostly deserted market in Abidjan’s Treichville neighborhood, where rebels loyal to Ouattara once battled Gbagbo’s Republican Guard.

“I bought two bags of rice and five bottles of oil because you never know,” she said.

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