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.

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