Guest Post: Elections Présidentielles en Côte d’Ivoire
On Thursday, October 28th, Barack Obama made a public statement that you probably didn’t hear a word of. Here is an excerpt:
The United States supports the people of Cote d’Ivoire as they prepare to express their democratic voice and participate in presidential elections… The Ivoirian government, the candidates, their supporters and all political actors have an obligation to ensure that the long-delayed presidential elections are held in a peaceful and transparent manner…The United States stands with the Ivoirian people as they prepare for long-awaited democratic elections, and move closer to lasting peace and prosperity.
The importance of these elections are not lost on Barack, but my guess is that most Americans do not understand the stakes of the presidential elections that will take place in Côte d’Ivoire on Halloween. So I’ve decided to change it up a little bit on Dan Braganca’s blog and tackle an African issue of real consequence.
It’s funny that so many regard Africa as some sickly incurable creature and yet no one bothers to actually take its pulse every once in while. Quick! Think of some African issues! AIDS! War! Genocide! Famine! Or this season’s media sensation “Al-Qaida in the Sahara!”. All of these things are ongoing or recent in the birthplace of love and war; I cannot tell a lie (George Washington, y’all)). But just when you thought there was no hope at all, just when you’d thrown in the towel, all of a sudden, you stopped. And you realized. Africa is a work in progress. It is a living breathing continent of real live human beings like you who just want better lives. You remember that the African continent is an integral part of the ongoing human drama, for better and for worse, and that it doesn’t require your pity or your fear but rather your consideration. So now that you’re calm, read this… unprecedented open democratic elections may be just around the corner in Côte d’Ivoire. If that doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, or seems unspectacular after such a hyped introduction, please feel free to continue reading anyway because it is actually pretty interesting. Please turn off your cellular phones and close your email and any instant messaging services. Thank you.
So, in assuming that basically no one in the anglophone world knows very much about the country that no longer wants you to call it Ivory Coast, I’ll give you a quick little run-down of what’s been up. Côte d’Ivoire is the undisputed economic powerhouse of West Africa (if we’re calling it west of Nigeria). Côte d’Ivoire kept very tight ties with former colonizer France after becoming independent in 1960 under President Houphouët-Boigny, who was very chum chum with a bunch of French Presidents. They had a wildly booming cocoa industry that was funding impressive development and infrastructure until the collapse of the price of cocoa in the early 80s. From that point, the country became increasingly indebted and President Houphouët became less and less popular. This whole time he beat down little uprisings and locked up political opponents. Then when he died in 1995, Côte d’Ivoire, a one-President country since independence, had an identity crisis, flipped out, and everyone started jockeying for position. People were rioting, militias tied to opposition candidates were on the move, the students were forming political parties and turning into armed forces. Xenophobia took center stage as Ivoirians suspected of Burkinabé lineage (from Burkina Faso, to the North, formerly part of the same French colony as Côte d’Ivoire) were persecuted and excluded from citizenship and the political process. For these last 15 years since Houphouët died, three men have been duking it out for the presidency. One of them is current President Laurent Gbagbo whose term should have ended in 2005, but has stretched on due to six election postponements . His historical rivals are Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié., the former Prime Minister and President of the Republic, respectively. I’m not going to tackle the relationship between the three, which is too complex for a simple blog entry, but let’s just say it involves xenophobia, massacres, secret alliances, and French military and economic interests. Very very messy stuff.
So on October 31st, if everything goes down as planned, Côte d’Ivoire will hold the first round of real democratic presidential elections that will feature all three major historical contenders (majority wins it, if not there will be a two candidate runoff election). Make no mistake, all actors and analysts insist on the “if everything goes down as planned” clause, but there is a decided optimism being oozed by sources close to the elections and experts. All major candidates have agreed on a list of over 5 million voters. Finally leaping the hurdle of finalizing a list of voters was a giant step overcome by this nation torn apart by ethnic strife with a history of strategic and xenophobic voter exclusion. The three main candidates have been having electoral meetings and palling around like MJ, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. If ever a shot at a peaceful transfer of power there was, now it is for Côte d’Ivoire.
So why does Obama think this election is important enough to make a public statement? Why didn’t he instead make a statement about the upcoming elections in neighboring Guinea, which will take place on the same day? The answer is that transparent elections in Côte d’Ivoire would score serious points for democracy and stability in a strategic region for many major global players. As Al-Queda Maghreb creeps southward from the Sahara into Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and others, the region needs peaceful democracy more than ever. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is exploding, carrying high unemployment and widespread disenfranchisement with it. The overwhelmingly young population (more than 50% under 20 years old) needs a sign of empowerment, a point of optimism, in order to avoid the radicalization trap and to responsibly manage the looming resource crunch, amongst numerous other problems. Functional democratically elected governments will be the best chance to fight desertification in the Sahel, famine in countries like Niger, terrorism, illiteracy, pollution, and a hoard of other problems. The next year will see a wave of elections throughout francophone Africa. Getting started on the right foot is essential, setting a positive precedent is invaluable. If more countries follow suit, it will set the stage for elections in countries like Niger and Burkina Faso that suffer from chronic military coups or are ruled by “presidents” for life. This is a crucial junction, the importance of which is not lost on Obama or the super-heavy investor in the African continent that you may know by the name of The People’s Republic of China.
So on the 31st of October, follow in the footsteps of Barry O and send good vibes to l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a positive trend to be established in the most important area of the world that you don’t care about yet.
To follow the election more closely, I would recommend www.jeuneafrique.com for those of you who understand French or www.theafricareport.com for probably everyone who reads this blog, because, seriously, who speaks French these days? What do you think we are? 18th century statesmen like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson? Sheesh.
For an incomplete English language crash course on the elections, check out this page: http://www.theafricareport.com/component/content/article/54/3295912.html
Zachary Rudes is a master’s student in Science Politique et Relations Internationales at The Institute for the Study of the Francophonie and Globalization at l’Université de Lyon 3 in France. The views expressed in this article are those of Zachary Rudes do not necessarily reflect those of Dan Branganca, even if Dan Braganca should probably agree with Zachary Rudes in the opinion of Zachary Rudes. Fin.