Friday, December 24, 2010

One Village Votes: radio documentary

At the link above, you can download the mp3 file of my fifty-minute radio documentary about the elections and their aftermath. It is a personal account and focuses on the people from one rural community north of Korhogo, where I have spent time for the past thirty years. Some of the people in this account live in the village itself, which I call Kalikaha in the documentary. Others now live in Korhogo, Koumassi, and Abobo.

Kalikaha voted peacefully on November 28. Gbagbo's representatives signed the sworn statements. But the villagers' votes were thrown out.

Now as Ouattara and Gbagbo play chess over the country's financial assets, ordinary people once again suffer the consequences. I only wish it had a happy ending.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dangerous streets

Amnesty International has expressed its concern about the violence in Abidjan perpetrated by the security forces against ordinary people. I hear the same thing over the telephone when I call friends. Pro-Gbagbo youths with machetes chasing youths in Abobo and beating them if they catch them, soldiers using tear gas even during the daytime in Koumassi to chase everyone back inside. The most chilling story came from someone who, on the way home to Abobo just before the curfew began, saw SUVs pull up at a house. The electricity was off there. A man in a boubou who looked like a neighbor knocked at the door. The people in the house opened the door. The man and soldiers went in. Shots were heard.

Meanwhile, RTI continues to tell only its side of the story: Gbagbo is protecting the country's sovereignty against unwarranted interference from the international community and the French who want to tell Ivorians how to run their own country and want to install their puppet as president.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cut off and trapped inside

This morning I woke up to wet heavy snow coating the branches and the street. On the internet I watched Ivorian television, the masquerade of Gbagbo being sworn in as president in the presidential palace in front of about two hundred people. Gbagbo himself looked serious, and when a noise came from outside, the audience members looked nervously over their shoulders at the door. On the road Gbagbo has taken, he will always have to look over his shoulder from now on, wondering who may burst in, how it may end. When the gold necklace was placed around his neck, he finally smiled and gave his supporters two thumbs up; his wife cheered enthusiastically from the front row. Of the 15 million Ivorians, these 200 people are the only ones who stand to benefit from his electoral coup.

Called friends on Saturday night. Do., in Abobo, said that Friday afternoon, when they heard that the Conseil Constitutional had named Gbagbo president, they ran straight home. They have not gone out since. They heard shots in the street Friday night and until about eleven on Saturday morning. It was quiet outside Saturday afternoon, but they were afraid to go out. “We have no news,” she said. “We have only the government television channel and they play the same speeches over and over.” I told her that the United Nations, the African Union, France, and Obama had all recognized Ouattara as the true president, that Soro had resigned to Ouattara and been reappointed by him, and the IMF had said they would not work with Gbagbo’s government.

“We didn’t know any of that,” she said. Even the United Nations FM station has been blocked. She had heard a rumor that Ouattara was inaugurated at the Golf Hotel.

I said that if they went to the cyber café, they could get the news on the Internet. “Yes, but it’s too dangerous to go out.” The little boys were playing soccer inside the apartment.

“How could they annul all those votes,” she said indignantly. “Korhogo, Bouaké, Ferké--it’s like we’re not part of the country!”

Her younger brother calls every day from the village to get news but she cannot call him back. Calls won’t go through to the north.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ivory Coast conflict--what does religion have to do with it?

Ivory Coast is in the news. And we keep hearing about the Muslim North and Christian South. Why can't the western media report on Ivory Coast without inventing a religious conflict that doesn't exist?

The BBC says that Ivory Coast has "long been deeply divided along ethnic, religious and economic lines." In the next paragraph, explaining why Alassane Ouattara was excluded from running for president, Ouattara is identified as a Muslim, as if his political exclusion is based on religion.

NPR uses "largely Muslim north" and calls the south "Christian and animist."

The NY Times wrote that "Mr. Ouattara is from the largely Muslim north — which has been a de facto separate country from the Christian south since the 2002 civil war--..."

Back to the BBC--it is unclear to me how Ivory Coast could be divided along religious lines. Muslims live everywhere in the country, particularly in urban centers. In fact, there are more Muslims living in the south (35%) than Christians (33%).

But more importantly, by including religion in every discussion of the conflict, the western press reinforces two stereotypes:

one, that African conflicts are always religious or ethnic in nature,

and two, that Christians and Muslims who live in the same country must inevitably be in conflict.

Ivorians are extremely tolerant about religion. It is the last thing they would go to war over. The people I discuss in this blog are mostly northerners, some of whom live in the south. Some are Christian, some are Muslim. One is an active animist religious leader who has converted to Islam, which bothers no one. Most support Ouattara, but I know both Muslims and animists who support Gbagbo.

It is true that politicians have tried to use ethnicity and religion to divide Ivorians and gain supporters, just as they have used xenophobic, nationalistic, and anti-French rhetoric. But religion as a divisive mechanism has not been terribly successful in Ivory Coast.

Ivorians are deeply divided--not over religion--but over who can hold Ivorian citizenship, vote, and run for office, and who can own land. The references to religion mislead western readers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

No winner, no loser, no results...

As Billy Billy sings, “Changement, Bloquage!” We are stuck at bloquage.

Before the first round of this election, the International Crisis Group warned that of all the possible run-off scenarios, the riskiest would be Gbagbo-Ouattara. In Abidjan, in Korhogo, and even here in the Midwestern US, in the first snow of the season, Ivorians and all of us who care about Ivory Coast are holding our breath…

“Surreal,” said the anchor on France 24 before she played the video of what happened yesterday at the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). As the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission got ready to announce results in his mellifluous baritone, two pro-Gbagbo members of the commission stood up and protested the announcement. As the spokesman watched in disbelief and the cameras whirred, one grabbed the sheets and walked away with them, tearing them up as he went.

The deadline to announce results--midnight Wednesday--has passed. The French, the Americans, the EU, the UN--everyone is urging the immediate announcement of the results. Between the lines of diplomatic language, perhaps the real message is, "Man up, Gbagbo, and admit defeat!" His response was to extend the curfew until Monday morning.

Gbagbo’s party, the LMP, wants the votes from the north invalidated. The Carter Center, the European Union, and the African Union all had observers in the north and all have judged the election, although not ideal, sufficiently transparent. The representative of the UN concurs.

If you look at the numbers, it’s clear that unfortunate as the problematic incidents were, they could not have changed the outcome. The numbers are essentially the same as the first round, which everyone agrees went impeccably. In the Savanes region (departments of Korhogo, Boundiali, Ferkéssedougou, and Tengrela), Gbagbo received 19, 312 votes in the first round, 6.5% of the vote. In the second round, he received 21, 203 votes or 6.45% of the vote. His percentage went down slightly while Ouattara’s percentage rose from 85.9% to 93.5%. This makes sense because the percentage of invalidated ballots went down from 6.6% to 1.3%. Most of those votes (16,635), cast correctly in the second round, probably went to Ouattara. Ouattara also picked up the votes of those who voted in the first round for Bedié and the eleven other candidates. Nevertheless, despite the intimidation his party claims, Gbagbo gained 1891 votes in the second round.

The rebellion happened in large part because northerners resented being excluded from the political process. To invalidate their votes now would doom the peace process and take the country back to more years of division and instability.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Run-off by Internet

I am watching the run-off like expatriate Ivorians—on the Internet. The nationwide mood of calm determination I experienced at the end of October has evaporated. Bitter accusations were hurled between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo in the last days of the campaign. Each accused the other of instigating the violence that has plagued Ivory Coast. But just when it seemed the campaign was slipping irretrievably into the danger zone, the two candidates backed off. Thursday night, as we ate Thanksgiving Dinner here, Ouattara and Gbagbo participated in a ninety-minute debate on Ivorian national television moderated by a journalist. It was both polite and substantive. The face-to-face debate was a first for Ivory Coast and may well be a first for West Africa. Even from here, I could feel the national sigh of relief.

But perhaps it was too little too late.

On Saturday, the day before the run-off, violence broke out. And now, as night falls on Election Day in Ivory Coast, at least six people have died.

Today I called friends to ask them how their Election Day had gone. In the neighborhood of Abobo, where three youths were killed on Saturday when soldiers fired live bullets at demonstrators protesting the curfew, Adama’s son Chekoroba, a university student, said that he was anxious. He was unable to vote because he had registered in Korhogo, his hometown in the north, so he stayed home all day. “There are young men on both sides in this neighborhood with rocks and machetes,” he said. “It is very worrisome.” He called his younger brother, who was staying in another neighborhood of Abidjan, and told him not to go out.

Also in Abobo, Dofongyoh, a schoolteacher, said turnout was down at the polling place where she worked. She thought the curfew made people nervous and kept them home, even though it didn't start until ten p.m.

Pauline, a friend, professor, and Gbagbo supporter, said that when she went to vote in an upper class neighborhood of Abidjan, the turnout was considerably lower than the first time. She thought it was because voters feared for their security. But she also thought that many people who voted the first time were not really Ivorian and stayed home, afraid of being found out this time.

Another friend, Lanzini, was at a polling place in a neighborhood of Abidjan called Marcory when I called. He found the low turnout a bad omen for his candidate, Ado. Nor was he pleased about the curfew from ten p.m. Sunday night to six a.m. Monday morning. He felt it made the vote count less transparent, although the curfew does not apply to members of the Independent Electoral Commission, journalists, or election observers.

In Korhogo, my friend Fofana was upbeat. Out of 338 registered voters at his neighborhood polling place, 280 had voted. The turnout was almost as high as the first round, but the voting went more quickly. With only two choices rather than fourteen, voters quickly found their candidate on the ballot. He said his neighborhood was peaceful, but in another part of Korhogo, Gbagbo’s campaign manager had his car windows broken out. The rumors in Korhogo say that he was bribing youths to vote for Gbagbo and trying to vote in more than one polling place. (This second accusation seems unlikely for someone so well known.)

On the national news, the spokesman for the LMP (La Majorité Presidentielle--Gbagbo's party) decried this event and listed others perpetrated by members of the New Forces against Gbagbo supporters. He asked to have the vote in the northern zone annulled. No spokesperson for the RHDP or the New Forces appeared on the news program to respond. No explanation for this one-sided coverage was given by the anchor.

Now comes the risky part--the announcement of the winner and the loser. Will the loser accept the results as both candidates have promised to do?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

RUN-OFF: Gbagbo-Ouattara

November 4, 2010 1:10 am

Just after midnight, the head of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), Youssouf Bakayoko, finally announced what everyone here had figured out themselves by piecing together the numbers. The run-off will be between outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo of the FPI Party and opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara of the RDR Party.

Gbagbo came in first with 38.3% of the vote. Ouattara was second with 33.08%. Former president Bedié received 25.24% of the votes cast. Bedié's PDCI, the former single party in the country, made a statement questioning the results and asking for a recount.

Voters here in Korhogo, in the northern part of the country, were intensely disappointed today as 80% support Ouattara. They had hoped that the rest of the country would follow their lead and that Ouattara, whom everyone calls Ado, would win in the first round.

Ivorians were worn out with waiting. Many sat listlessly Wednesday, unable to concentrate on anything but why the results were taking so long. Even the favorite Ivorian pastime of sharing conspiracy theories and rumors lost its lustre. Anxious observers criticized the slow announcement and urged the CEI to get moving.

Overall, the election went amazingly well. Election observers here from the Carter Center and the European Union noted only minor infractions. Even the slow announcement of results, they remarked unofficially, was the result of disorganization rather than any intention to deceive.

Eighty percent of Ivorians turned out to vote, and in some places, the percentage was as high as 86%. Election day was animated by a remarkable spirit of mutual respect and civic determination. After nearly ten years of crisis, Ivorians flocked to classrooms turned into polling places to cast their ballots for a peaceful reunification of their country. They desperately want a return to normal life and to restart the engine of their stalled economy.

Worn Out With Waiting

Worn out with waiting for the election results and disappointed that her candidate didn't win in the first round, Nawa Koné, a young widow and mother of two, sat listlessly Wednesday afternoon waiting for news.

She and her family were awakened in the middle of the night before the election when neighbors knocked on their door. Unless everyone got out of bed and bathed in cold water, the war would start again, they were told. Although the neighborhood has no running water, everyone in the area drew well water and did as they were told. They were afraid not to.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Armchair Still Empty

There are lots of armchairs in the market in Korhogo but there is only one armchair that counts right now.

The Presidential Armchair.

Will someone sit down after the first round? Or will we go to the second round at the end of November?

The wait is driving everyone crazy and rumors are flying. Ado first round! Ado and Bedié second round! Ado and Gbagbo second round! Text messages and phone calls are zipping around the country as friends and relatives pass on their local results.

Some provisional results were read out last night by the spokesperson from the Independent Electoral Commission, but many departments and some heavily populated neighborhoods of Abidjan were not among them. Since eighty percent of people here support the RDR candidate, Alassane Ouattara, they are worried.

"We only have one thing on our minds!" said Natalie Coulibaly, who sells fruit in the market, "Since the day before yesterday. The results!"

The longer the wait, the more the suspicions mount. Here is what people say:

"If the party in power had won, we would have known by now. They are trying to block the announcement."

"The Independent Electoral Commission? Independent!?! They are dependent on the head of the government!"

"They will announce it at midnight when everyone is sleeping so there is less violence."

"We are counting on these elections to bring peace and for things to be normal again. Ten years of war is enough. If we have a new president, things will normalize."

"NO SECOND ROUND! It will give the troublemakers too much time to organize."

Felix Awantang, an observer from the American Embassy: "The people have spoken. Now it's time for us to listen."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tempers Flare in Korhogo and New Forces Calm the Troubled Waters

Tempers flared today in Korhogo as the teachers and others who had worked for the Independent Electoral Commission demanded their salaries for the long day they worked on Sunday. They were at their posts before the polls opened at seven and many did not finish the vote count until midnight. A crowd of several hundred besieged the office of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). "We're hungry! We need our money!" they called out. "It's not right. We worked. Now we need our pay!"

There were 713 polling places in the Department of Korhogo, with three election officials working at each. The pollworker who served as president is due a salary of 15,000 CFA (about $32.00), and the other two are each supposed to receive 10,000 CFA (about $21.00).

The political chief of the ex-rebellion New Forces in Korhogo, Kagnigué Soro (in black striped shirt) promised that the money would arrive shortly.

The New Forces Commander of Korhogo, Martin K. Fofié, made a rare public appearance at the office of the Independent Electoral Commission about noon on Tuesday. Below he is seen greeting United Nations security forces on his arrival. Fofié has been sanctioned by the United Nations for an incident during the rebellion in which prisoners who had been locked in a container suffocated.

The pollworkers moved to the Prefecture and waited, but at nightfall, not a franc had been distributed. Nawa Soro, who was waiting outside the Prefecture, worked as secretary at a polling place in Daboka. "It went so well. We don't want problems now," he said. "But we need the money."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Day in Katiali!

Women wait their turn to vote.

This woman walked eleven kilometers to vote!

The ballot.

Pollworkers dip a voter's finger in ink.

Member of the New Forces (ex-rebellion) shows his authorization to provide security.

Counting the ballots to make sure all are there before counting votes.

Counting the votes and filling out the paperwork by lantern light.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Election Day in Korhogo!

United Nations peacekeepers patrolled the streets of Korhogo.

This polling station in Korhogo at the Lycée Municipale opened about 7:30 this morning, a half hour behind schedule. The voting moved slowly as each person's card and name were checked and they were given a stamped ballot. After depositing their ballot, each person dipped his or her finger in ink. Elderly women were taken to the front of the line by the uniformed security forces.

In each polling station, the three largest political parties were represented by pollwatchers. "This is our chance to be of use to the country," said an RDR pollwatcher. The voter above came prepared for the wait.

An elderly woman is helped to the front of the line.

Adama Koné dips his finger in ink to show he has voted. He was the 25th voter. 379 are expected at this station. "Easy," he said. "No problems. Just a long wait!"

Signing in with a fingerprint.

Natagora Gets Out the Vote for Ado

On Friday afternoon, I went to see an old friend in the village, a widow named Natagora Sylla. Natagora is never afraid to speak her mind and she is a fervent supporter of Ado.

I asked whether anyone had come by to show the women in her part of the village how to vote. “No, the men are too busy with the campaign,” she said. “So I decided to call a meeting myself.” Natagora isn’t literate, but the RDR men had given her a photocopy of the ballot and showed her how to mark it correctly. She also had a brochure that explained all the rules for voting. A non-governmental organization had dropped them off in the village to help women vote, although they confused most people because the sample ballot pictured in the brochure was an invented one, and when people looked for the symbol of their candidate, it wasn’t there.

By the time I reached her house later that night, about forty women, all dressed in their best clothes, were sitting on mats under the light outside. Natagora was holding up the photocopy of the ballot and shining a flashlight on it. The women passed the ballot and flashlight around and repeated her explanation. Find the little house and then go straight down and in the box under it, you either make an X with a pen or you dip your finger in the ink and put it carefully there.

Two of the women said they couldn’t vote because their photo was too dark. They could have their identity card remade, but not until after the election.

While the ballot went from group to group, the conversation moved from voting to marriage. Natagora said she thought it was time to end forced marriages in the village. “We want to marry this young girl to that young man. We, the parents, we start playing the drums and singing even if the couple is unhappy. All that is going to change. It’s going to be over.”

In Katiali, volunteers for the RDR and Ado were delighted with their candidate's appearance on "Face aux Electeurs" the night before. They felt he blew away the competition. Five was the magic number. Ado promised that within five years he would build five new universities and a health clinic within five kilometers of each person. Aboulonala, N'golo Politique, and Abou Dix were all heading to the sous-prefecture for training as RDR pollwatchers when this picture was taken.

"When Ado was prime minister," N'golo Politique said, "he was in his office at seven-thirty every morning, calling other people to see if they were at work!"

Ado often wears an American-style baseball cap, which has created a bit of a trend among the other candidates. The American cap implies hard worker and meritocracy, two things the voters desperately want to see after the election. "Now," said one farmer, "the people in the offices are no good at papers because they paid money to get their job. And the people who are good at papers are unemployed!"

Gbagbo's reaction was more pointed. He called Ado a liar. The insult was a little rip in the carefully maintained civic reconciliation. That night, when he went on "Face aux Electeurs" as the last candidate, Gbagbo said that his accusation was all just part of the battle of the campaign, just attack rhetoric. He used the phrase "violence verbale." Now that the campaign is over, that's over, he continued. But it made listeners here nervous. It isn't clear whether Gbagbo's young unemployed followers, who are prone to violence, and who took to the streets to put him in the presidency in 2000, understand the difference between campaign rhetoric and action in the street.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Katiali: One Village Prepares to Vote

Domingué Yeo, president of a cooperative of cotton farmers in Katiali, supports former president Henri Konan Bedié, the candidate of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) because when Bedié was president, the price of cotton was higher. "If we get a decent price for our cotton," said Domingué, "we can buy what we need. We can send our children to school." Domingué said he didn't care that Bedié was from another ethnic group and another region. What mattered to him was the price of cotton. Domingué and the other farmers will harvest this year's cotton crop shortly and he says it promises to be a good harvest.

Someone in the village exhumed this ancient poster of the first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny and put it up for a meeting of PDCI organizers that were touring the area. The PDCI was the Old Man’s party and until the 1990s, the only political party in the country.

Domingué hasn’t seen Bedié on television, but his neighbors who did said Bedié looked too old and tired to govern anything. Bedié did not appear on the 90-minute program “Face aux Electeurs” to answer questions from journalists.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for Bedié, some of Domingué's neighbors turned out to wait for the PDCI organizers on October 29, the last day of the presidential campaign. (It officially opened October 14--why can't ours be this short?) While they waited, musicians played for the village chief and other elders, and the kids practiced their dance moves.

It's reassuring to see the election observers from the European Union meeting in Korhogo.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ca va se passer!

This time is for real. At least, that’s what people here say. “Ca va se passer! It’s going to happen!” The new national photo ID cards and voter registration cards have been successfully distributed. A current of hopeful excitement runs through the largest city, Abidjan. But there is also a current of nervous fear. So many things can so easily go wrong.

One schoolteacher, drafted to work at the polls, said she would have preferred to vote early and then stay home. But she felt she had no choice. She is hoping the UN peacekeepers will be in her neighborhood, which is densely populated and politically divided.

So goes Abidjan, so goes the election, say observers, because 30% of registered voters live in the sprawling port city. Half of those urban voters are under 35. And nearly half of those are unemployed.

There are fourteen candidates for president, but three front-runners—incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, former president Henry Bedié, and former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, known as Ado. Each candidate has a symbol for illiterate voters: Gbagbo, who smiles confidently in every photo, has two fingers raised in a victorious V. Ado has a round thatched roof hut like you see in northern villages. Bedié has an elephant.

The other eleven candidates, including one woman, a former Minister of Justice (clasped hands), and a popular comedian (a smiling mouth), are campaigning hard. They are positioning themselves for the run-off. Felix Akoto-Yao, an independent (the blue rooster), was holding a rally in the central city of Bouaké when I passed through. Like all the others, he stressed job creation for the young. He had no T-shirts to give out; the money, he said, could be better spent elsewhere.

When I asked a member of his campaign if Akoto-Yao had a chance without a party behind him, he played the anti-incumbent card. “Better an independent,” he responded. “My candidate hasn’t had any part in Ivorian politics.”

In Bouaké, a city caught in the middle during the civil war, black oil had been poured over the smile of the current president on every one of his shiny blue billboards.

“We are all tired of this,” the candidate said into his microphone, and the crowd murmured in assent. It’s the dominant refrain of the election. “We are worn out.” Worn out with political conflict, worn out with partition, with corruption, with our economy stuck at a standstill. Worn out with their political leaders.

But Ivorians are not worn out with the election. Volunteers sing and hand out T-shirts. There are substantive debates on television. A different candidate answers questions from journalists for an hour and a half every night.

The questions are tough: How will you end corruption? How will you create jobs? We haven’t yet heard the Big 3 but the others speak frankly. Tourism? Low on my list. Our people need to eat. Foreign investment? Investors won’t come until we have a transparent judicial system. Social security accounts. Education accounts. Railroads. Taxes--for education. Lower taxes for youth and women. Regional universities. More women in government. The ideas of the future float up into the cloudy Ivorian sky…no matter what happens on Election Day, these ideas have been heard and they won’t go away.

This commentary aired on Illinois Public Media WILL AM 580 on October 28, 2010. You can download the podcast there.

Korhogo: The Town Near the Village

At this voter registration center on the second floor of an elementary school in Korhogo, workers had already given out most of the plastic photo identity cards and the voter registration cards. Another center I visited had given out 96% of its cards. I have not met a single person in Korhogo who has been unable to pick up a card. During the legislative elections in 2002, officials were standing in front of city hall with stacks of cards, calling out names the night before the election. Many people never received their cards or felt intimidated from trying to pick up their cards. This time, every one I talk to feels included.
On est optimiste, people say.

A group of Gbagbo supporters came up from Abidjan and held a raucous cavalcade through town. You will hear these girls singing in my next podcast. One of their songs translates
Easy as eating corn on the cob! Winning the election! Gbagbo!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Village Comes to the City

Gnéré is one of the rare ones who managed to get an education at the village elementary school and then to go on to Korhogo for middle school, high school, and teacher training. She teaches the equivalent of fourth grade. So many people have moved to Abidjan during the political crisis that she has 78 children this year, but they attend school for only half the day because of overcrowding. In the afternoon, another teacher uses the same small classroom for the other half of the fourth graders.

Besides her own four children, Gnéré and her husband, a mechanic, support two of Dofongnoh's younger siblings from the village, Gnon and N'golo so that they can go to school, as well as two nieces who are training to be tailors. In all, there are seventeen people in their household.

When I was there, it was Sunday afternoon and her boys and Gnon and N'golo were doing their homework with a tutor. Gnon came first in her class this year out of 108 students, a remarkable thing because Gnon never would have gone to school if Gnéré had not asked permission for her to come live with her and help with the children. Their three parents (they have the same father but different mothers) reluctantly agreed. Once she arrived in Abidjan, Gnon began to pester Gnéré to go to school. Their parents said no. But Gnon was determined. She began to follow along when the other children did their lessons, and the following year, Gnéré persuaded their parents to give their assent.

Gnéré has been pressed into service as a poll worker at her school and will have two days of training this week. "I'd rather vote early and then stay home all day," she confesses nervously. But there won't be an election without poll workers, so she felt she had no choice. Like everyone else, she carries a heavy load these days--hopes for a successful election and a return to normality, but also fears, fears of another round of violence in her overcrowded city and another step backward for her country.

RDR Party Meeting in Abobo

Activists for the RDR party held a lively rally Sunday in Abobo, a neighborhood of Abidjan where many of the residents are originally from the northern part of Ivory Coast. Their candidate, Alassane Ouattara or Ado is an American-educated economist and former Prime Minister. Ado's rival, incumbent Gbagbo, was expected in the neighborhood the following day. "We are worn out," said the speaker. "We want a change!"

At a nearby school, campaign workers for the RDR Party held a meeting to show their supporters how to vote for their candidate. This volunteer is holding up a sample ballot and explaining in Jula, a Mandé language and the Ivorian lingua franca, exactly how to mark and fold the ballot. When asked, those in attendance said they had retrieved their voter registration cards without any problems. In the past, northerners have accused the government of excluding them from the voter rolls.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Voters Wear Their Support in Abidjan

Virginie and Elodie, above, were part of a group of campaign workers handing out T-shirts for incumbent Laurent Gbagbo in Deux Plateaux, an upper class neighborhood of Abidjan. They support Gbagbo because, they say, he loves the country.

This supporter of Alassane Ouattara, known as Ado, was returning from a rally for her candidate in Abobo, a densely-populated neighborhood of Abidjan.

She preferred not to give her name but gladly showed off her Ado totebag. She supported Ado because, she said, we need a change.

Battle of the Billboards in Abidjan

The election will be won or lost in Abidjan. About 30% of the registered voters live here. And a large proportion of those voters are young. Their regional affiliations are weaker than those of their parents.

Each candidate has a symbol for voters who are not literate and you can see them on the billboards. Fingers raised in a V of Victory for Gbagbo, a thatched roof, mud-brick house for Ado, and the map of Ivory Coast for Bedié.

Hard to say what's going on with the farmer on the billboard above with Bedié. He wears American jean overalls and the hat of a Fulani cattle herder. I've certainly never seen a farmer dressed like this one in Ivory Coast. When I asked an Ivorian friend, he replied, "Maybe he's the farmer of the future." Maybe...

On the roads of Abidjan, the clear winner of the Battle of the Billboards is incumbent Laurent Gbagbo. He covers the soccer stadium.

Coming in fourth in the Battle of the Billboards is Francis Wodié of the Workers' Party, a retired law professor.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why These Elections Matter

Since 2002, when an armed rebellion took the north but failed to capture the south, Ivory Coast has been stuck in a paralyzed stalemate that is neither all-out civil war nor genuine peace.

The first president of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, ruled over a one-party state with a state-controlled media. The Old Man took office at independence in 1960; he settled into the presidential armchair and didn’t budge. In 1990, with his health failing, he was pressured into allowing, for the first time, an independent press and multiple parties. When he died in 1993 without naming a successor, the struggle between the next generation of political leaders ripped the country apart.

At the same time, the economy declined. The Ivorian economy depends on the export prices of coffee and cocoa, which are grown in the southern part of the country. When prices were high, Ivory Coast, especially the south, prospered. Migrant workers from poorer neighboring countries were welcomed. But prices fell, and high unemployment in the 1990s forced young men to leave the city of Abidjan and return to the countryside. But the land they hoped to farm was already being cultivated by emigrants from two countries to the north, Burkina Faso and Mali, and by farmers who had moved south from northern Ivory Coast.

Calling themselves “true Ivorians,” locals seized the farms of people they called foreigners. Farmers originally from neighboring countries and from the north were driven away from plantations they had cleared, planted, and tended for generations.

Self-serving politicians inflamed the southerners with an exclusionary, xenophobic politics they called “Ivoirité.” According to Ivoirité, some Ivorians, specifically southerners, were more Ivorian than others. The government blocked the northern candidate from running for president in 1995, claiming he wasn’t Ivorian enough because his mother had been born in Burkina Faso. Ivoirité was like playing with matches and gasoline. In Abidjan, violent street mobs attacked northerners. Hundreds of people died and many more were driven out of their homes. The armed rebellion in 2002, led and supported by northerners, was the eventual response.

A peace agreement signed by all parties in March 2007 officially ended the conflict and the ex-rebels, known as the New Forces, joined the unity government. But the signers didn’t rush to reunite the country and hold elections. While government leaders and New Forces commanders dragged their feet and jockeyed for advantage, or profited from the war economy, ordinary Ivorians suffered. Their fragile economy was split in two, and roads, water systems, health clinics, and schools, already very basic, deteriorated.

The past eight years have been especially tough in the northern part of the country. “We are like one of those little millet pancakes the women grill,” a village elder said. “When we are burned on one side, they turn us over and burn us on the other.”

Longing for an end to the ordeal, Ivorians are placing their hopes on presidential elections, which should have been held in 2005. After six postponements, Election Day has finally been set for October 31, 2010. The political leaders who ripped the country apart are enthusiastically campaigning for the job of stitching it back together.

The logistical challenges to this election are daunting. Getting the voter ID cards out to remote communities in time won’t be easy. And that’s just the beginning.

Nor is one election a panacea. But it is a critical and necessary first step. Fifty years after independence, the people of Ivory Coast hope to vote peacefully for a single president. They know the future of their country hangs in the balance.

Hear the podcast of this post on Illinois Public Media WILL AM 580.