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Ivory Coast Election Has Divided Country on Edge

  • Nico Colombant

All the political protagonists in Ivory Coast are on board for a presidential election finally scheduled to take place October 31st. The country has been divided since rebels took up arms in 2002. The election was initially scheduled for 2005 but was repeatedly pushed back over delays in implementing a peace deal between President Laurent Gbagbo and the northern-based rebels.

Mr. Gbagbo recently campaigned in the cocoa-rich and still rebel-held northwestern city of Man.
He promised employment for the region's many jobless youths, some of whom became rebel fighters after the insurgency began in 2002.

"I will bring you work. It is because young people did not have work, they were deceived and they took up arms. A young man who works does not take up arms," he said.

One of Mr. Gbagbo's main opponents in the election is former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara. He had been barred from running in previous presidential elections because of doubts over his nationality. But a key rebel demand has been to allow him to run.

The former International Monetary Fund deputy director recently campaigned in the southern commercial capital, Abidjan. "Let us give a better future for our country by giving the destiny of Ivory Coast to a man who knows what he is doing," he said.

The third major candidate is former President Henri Konan Bedie, who was deposed in a coup in 1999. He is the candidate of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast - formerly the long-standing ruling party.

Rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who is currently the prime minister in a government of national unity, is not running. But he is behind the process and recently welcomed the start of voter card distribution to an expanded list of 5.7 million eligible voters. "With this card, we will have finally answered the identity question," he said.

Rebels say they have been fighting to get equal rights for northerners, many of them the descendants of agricultural migrant workers from neighboring countries who came to work in Ivory Coast.

Hundreds of thousands of these previously-undocumented residents were able to get Ivorian nationality papers and voting cards through the ongoing peace process.

But in Washington, a campaign official for the opposition candidate Ouattara, Yacouba Kone, told VOA he still has concerns Mr. Gbagbo's side will try to stir up problems, to delay the election once again.

"People who are running the country are looking for trouble right now, just looking for a violent situation to happen so we don't want to give them any occasion to do anything. So it is the best way to run this campaign quietly, like a civilized man, not just like somebody who is going to throw bullets on each other," he said.

Kone also has concerns about whether all voting cards will be sent to the right places, and whether elections will go smoothly in opposition strongholds in the south.

Mr. Gbagbo's supporters say his opponents, whom they accuse of getting foreign help, are already preparing excuses for when they lose.

All sides share security concerns for whenever results might be announced, despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers and a French rapid reaction force. Pro-government militias in the south and rebels in the north have yet to be disarmed or fully reintegrated into the army.

Back in Man, which has become run-down since the start of the rebellion, market woman Fanta Doumbia says she now has a hard time making $1 a day in what was previously West Africa's most prosperous nation. "The country was not like this before, but we pray to God to give us the man who can bring us peace and run our country well," she said.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round of voting, a second-round runoff between the top two finishers is scheduled for the end of November.

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