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.