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May 27, 2013

Abidjan 'Web Mayor' Dreams of Online El Dorado

by Robbie Corey-Boulet

Ivory Coast’s first-ever elected “Web Mayor” was officially sworn-in on Friday by a group of computer-technology enthusiasts hoping to shed the country's reputation for cybercrime and make Abidjan the continent’s latest tech hub.
 
Kneeling on the floor and surrounded by a team of advisers, Emmanuel Assouan, clad in a dark suit and red necktie, places one hand on an iPad and reads aloud the oath of office.
 
Following a hard-fought campaign against 11 other candidates, the 22-year-old graphics and Web designer has officially assumed his role as the first “Web Mayor” of the nation's commercial capital.
 
Organized by members of Abidjan’s innovative group of startup founders, Web strategists, designers, entrepreneurs and bloggers, the election was held just days after government-organized polls for municipal and regional offices.
 
According to Amevi Midekor, one of the election organizers, the campaigns for “Web Mayor” persuaded the interests of the country's online community in a way that the government elections could not.
 
“The Web community is on course to grow and enlarge here in Ivory Coast. It is a space where expression is free and people can say whatever they want," he says. “So we needed to have our own mayor, because generally the people who are elected in the government elections are not effective, and they do not think of the population. We wanted someone who would think about us.”
 
Assouan, who has no budget to speak of and only one term to serve, has ambitious goals to end Abidjan’s reputation for cybercrime and turn the city into an “El Dorado” for tech enthusiasts.
 
Campaigning on a promise to make the Ivorian Web “healthy, safe and rich in content,” one of his first steps, he says, will be to facilitate dialogue between two camps that are naturally at odds — hackers and the Web developers whose programs they try to outsmart.
 
“I want to eliminate the differences and the inequalities among these groups, so that we can share our knowledge and give a better image of our country to the outside," he says. "Our country is currently on blacklists because of cybercrime, but I want to turn us into an El Dorado for all of Africa.”
 
The Ivorian online community has already come a long way in just a few years. During the country's post-election violence in of 2010-11, members experimented with Twitter and other programs to quickly spread information get assistance to people in need of medical care or food.
 
Since then, other projects have been launched to help the general public: CivRoute, for example, is a program that allows users to post updates on road accidents and traffic jams, making the city more navigable.
 
Earlier this year, one designer created a masked cartoon villain whose presence informs residents about power cuts. The name of the antihero, Delestron, derives from the French word for power cut, delestage. His Facebook page now has nearly 5,000 “likes.”
 
Bacely Yorobi, who finished third in the election and has since been named to Assouan’s circle of advisers, says Ivory Coast’s Web experts are now ready to play a role in decisions that affect the whole country.
 
“There is a need for technocrats," says Yorobi. "We can have people online who influence the decisions taken in the country — by the government and others who play a role in managing the country. This election is a strong signal that those of us who are online are ready to take the lead.”