19 April 2013

Cote d'Ivoire: Internal Divisions Trouble Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast is a tense place where political allies can turn quickly into foes. More than two years after post-election bloodshed, it is still divided as the run-up to Sunday's local and region elections has shown.

"There was sweat on my brow before the first meeting," recalls Jens-Uwe Hettmann. He runs the Abidjan branch of a German think tank, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

In the autumn of 2012, the foundation, which is affiliated to Germany's Social Democrat Party, organized a public debate in Abijdan which brought together players from the various political camps.

Alassane Ouattara won a run-off election against Laurent Gbagbo in late 2010

In Ivory Coast, such endeavors can cause the organizers sleepless nights.

"Thinking of the tense atmosphere and rhetoric that political opponents had been letting loose on one another in the media, one couldn't automatically assume that the meeting would pass off peacefully," Hettmann said.

But in the end all went well and the discussion was largely objective and dispassionate.

However, that would seem to be an exception. The mood in Ivory Coast is still volatile as voters prepare to go to the polls in regional and local elections on Sunday (21 April 2013). Observers have reported acts of violence in the run-up to the polls and the German foreign ministry has issued an advisory for travelers in the region.

One underlying reason for the tension is the outcome of the 2010 presidential elections. Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to hand over power to Alassane Outtara, who had defeated him at the ballot box.

But in the spring of 2011, Outtara was officially declared president and Gbagbo was arrested as the Ivorian authorities bowed to international pressure. Gbagbo is now in custody in The Hague, where judges at the International Criminal Court have yet to decide whether his case should go to trial.

Little hope of reconciliation

Since the bloodshed of 2010/2011, a deep rift has opened up in Ivorian society. Gbagbo's supporters still view those who voted for Outtara, the current president, with much suspicion. For many Ivorians, reconciliation between the two groups is a very long way off. Amelie Kadjane, whom DW met on the streets of Abidjan said "if politicians can't bring themselves to tell the truth and if those who were previously in positions of power cannot show some humility and apologize for what they have done, then we cannot speak of reconciliation." She also said there should be no "victor's justice," adding that those currently in power "should not be permitted to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors."

Laurent Gbagbo attending a pre-trial hearing at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in February 2013

The rights group Amnesty International has also been voicing criticism of the Ivorian authorities. Troops dispatched by President Outtara had committed grave breaches of human rights when responding to attacks by alleged Gbagbo supporters, the group said in a report published in February 2013. Amnesty also claims that both sides were responsible for perpetrating acts of violence during the unrest in 2010/2011. The sole presence of the defeated Gbagbo in The Hague is seen by many Ivorians as "victor's justice." Daniel Djedje, another passerby in Abidjan whom DW spoke to, views matters with rather more equanimity. Police and military do get punished for their misdeeds, he said. "That will continue to happen. We must just be patient and wait for things to work themselves out."

Absent Gbagbo

The events of 2010/2011 and their consequences will have a direct impact on Sunday's regional and local elections. Laurent Gbagbo's party has announced it is boycotting the vote. They made their participation dependent on the release of Gbagbo and this condition has not been met. Other parties are also staying away.

This would suggest the parties now governing the country at national level have a good chance of winning these local and regional polls. However, their difficulties persist. "The two remaining bigger parties," said Jens-Uwe Hettmann, "of President Outtara and of Houphouet-Boigny, (the father of independence) respectively, are at loggerheads." The alliance to which they belong is crumbling. "Gbagbo's arrest and extradition to The Hague means that the glue that kept this alliance together is losing its adhesive power," Hettmann added. The two parties have joined forces for these elections only in a few constituencies, elsewhere the competition between them has spilled over into violence.

Gbagbo's refusal to recognize defeat sparked months of violence that killed over 3,000 people

Verbal brutality on social media sites

Hettmann has also noticed that Ivorians are trading insults on social media sites when discussing topical newspaper articles. "This is a sign that the mental de-escalation, which the United Nations has quite rightly called for, simply hasn't happened." He believes Ivory Coast's politicians are under an obligation to heal the divisions in the country.

Hettmann also finds it particularly worrying that rifts along ethnic and religious lines are becoming more apparent in Ivorian society. Nonetheless, some Ivorians have been calling for an end to ethnic-oriented policies. But this is not the only problem facing the country. Land reform is still pending, public order and the judiciary need improving. "As long as these issues are not addressed," said Hettman, "the government strategy of using economic growth to give back the country some sense of equilibrium simply won't yield results."

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