Ivory Coast voted today in a presidential run-off election that has inflamed political tensions in the world’s top cocoa grower, pitting a candidate backed by the rebel-held north against the incumbent who draws support from the south.
At least six people were killed in clashes in the build up to the vote, prompting the government to impose a nighttime curfew for six days to Dec. 2. The curfew delayed the start of voting beyond 7 a.m. in many areas of the capital, leading authorities to allow polling stations to stay open late.
“I feel a bit scared,” said Celestine N’dja, a civil servant, as she queued up to vote in the commercial capital, Abidjan. “We have suffered in the past 10 years, we’re tired of the crisis.”
Ivory Coast has been divided between the rebel north and the government-controlled south since an uprising in 2002. Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, 65, hold opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, 68, responsible for the revolt, while rebels blame the government for treating northerners as second-class citizens. Growth has averaged 1.1 percent since the uprising as the country missed out on the wave of investment in Africa from nations such as China.
Gbagbo, who has ruled for a decade, received 38 percent of the first-round vote on Oct. 31, winning 10 of 13 regions in the south. Ouattara, a former prime minister, got 32 percent of the ballot and dominated in five of six northern regions. A third candidate, Henri Konan Bedie, got 25 percent of the vote.
“This presidential election presents Ivorian politicians with a unique opportunity to end a decade of crisis,” Brussels- based International Crisis Group said in an e-mailed statement on Nov. 25. “Since the announcement of the results of the first round, the climate has deteriorated.”
Both campaigns have stepped up negative rhetoric, prompting the Atlanta-based Carter Center, a non-governmental organization, to urge candidates to halt “personal attacks made in a threatening tone.”
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara “have extremists in their ranks and there is no guarantee that the loser will accept the results,” said Dominique Assale Aka, vice-chairman of the Ivorian Civil Society Convention, in an interview Nov. 22. “It’s all or nothing for them.”
Still, during a televised debate on Nov. 25, the two candidates pledged to respect results announced by the electoral commission. Ouattara called for the count to be released within 24 hours of the end of voting today.
‘One Meal a Day’
The European Union observer mission estimated voter turnout at about 65 percent. Cristian Preda, the mission chief, said they were investigating reports that opposition supporters weren’t allowed to vote in the southwest of the country, Gbagbo’s native region.
Boosting development might be the best way to avoid a future of ethnic tensions, said Rolake Akinola, West Africa analyst with Eurasia Group.
“I live on one meal a day and I can’t get married because I don’t have the means to feed a family,” said Moussa Fofana, an unemployed 30-year-old as he queued to vote in Attiecoube, a poor neighborhood of Abidjan. “A lot of youth in Ivory Coast live like me, a life without prospects, without hope. We really need change.”
The percentage of Ivory Coast’s 21 million people living in poverty rose to 49 percent in 2008 from 38 percent in 2002, according to a United Nations survey.
The situation is worse in the north, the International Monetary Fund said in a report in 2009. Annual income per capita in the North was 191,540 CFA francs ($390) and 281,660 francs in the Center-North, compared with 348,247 francs in the South-West.
“The promise of infrastructural development and economic opportunities for the population has to be fulfilled in order to keep ethnic tensions at bay in the longer-term,” said Akinola.
Ivory Coast, which neighbors Africa’s second-biggest gold producer Ghana, is in talks with companies including BHP Billiton Ltd. and ArcelorMittal over investment projects, Mines and Energy Minister Augustin Comoe said Oct. 5. Channel Islands-based Randgold Resources Ltd. poured its first gold from its Tongon mine in the country on Nov. 8, the company said.
During the televised debate, Gbagbo said Ivory Coast should cooperate with Liberia and Guinea to mine natural resources, while aiming to double cocoa production within 20 years. Ouattara said he wanted to reduce taxes to attract investors and lower tax evasion.