Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo (center) with supporters in Abidjan after he submitted his candidacy for presidential election, 16 October 2009
Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo (center) with supporters in Abidjan after he submitted his candidacy for presidential election, 16 October 2009

The International Crisis Group warns Ivory Coast's long-delayed presidential poll could lead to "violent chaos" if more is not done to ensure the security of the electoral process and resolve issues of nationality and voter eligibility.

In a report released this month, International Crisis Group cautioned that the existence of armed groups and militias, a resurgence of xenophobic language and economic strain make for an "explosive environment" as Ivory Coast struggles to get preparations back on track for its presidential poll.

The vote is an attempt to find a lasting political solution to nearly a decade of internal conflict.  It has already been pushed back six times since civil war split the country in half in 2002.

International Crisis Group Senior West Africa Analyst Rinaldo Depagne says Ivory Coast is not only trying to organize elections, but also emerge from a long period of crisis, which makes the current electoral stalemate all the more troubling and volatile.

The situation in Ivory Coast is tense, Depagne says.  The population is exasperated and does not see a light in the tunnel or how the country is going to get out of this long crisis period. He says the economic situation is also very delicate, and there is political tension.  So, he says, any demonstration or protest could lead to violence and deaths, as we saw in February.

The most recent setback came after President Laurent Gbagbo dissolved the government and electoral commission on February 12, sparking violent protests around the country that killed seven people and wounded dozens.  Mr. Gbagbo had accused the electoral commission of illegally registering as many as 400,000 foreigners.

Of the more than six-million names on the provisional voter list, the eligibility of 1.3-million voters is still being disputed on grounds of nationality.

This week, the independent electoral commission opened the review process during which those 1.3-million contested voters will have to prove their eligibility.

The question of "Who is Ivorian" was divisive during the civil war and remains sensitive in Ivory Coast, which has attracted large immigrant populations from neighboring countries like Burkina Faso.

In its report, the International Crisis Group condemned a resurgence of hate language and, what it called, "xenophobic Ivorian nationalism." Depagne said the voter identification process still carries serious risks of violence.

Depagne says Ivory Coast is a country of great immigration, and it is difficult to define who is Ivorian.  He says we just need to accept that everyone has the same objectives and there are a number of people who have been living in Ivory Coast and want to continue to live there and be respected.  But, he says, that is not the case, and the issue of nationality is still being used to political ends by all sides.

In the past week, President Laurent Gbagbo has met with lead opposition candidates, Henri Konan Bedie and Alassane Ouattara, to reopen negotiations and try to get the electoral process back on track.

But the publication of a final voter list is not the only obstacle remaining.  The disarmament of the country's former rebel factions, the New Forces, and pro-government militias is also behind schedule.

International Crisis Groups says that means Ivory Coast is organizing elections in "a situation of armed peace" that could compromise the vote and lead to violence.

Right now, Depagne says, the only hope we can have is that everyone begins to disarm, meaning both the New Forces and the pro-government militias who are still active in the extreme West of the country.  He says it is very difficult to organize free and transparent elections in a country where there are so many guns.

The International Crisis Group report called on the New Forces to not only start disarming, but also to facilitate the organizing of elections by lifting roadblocks.

There could be as many as 40,000 former rebels to disarm and reintegrate.

But, Depagne says for the moment the New Forces is hesitant to disarm because it does not trust the presidential camp will not try to reunite the country by force.  So, he says, each side is holding to its conditions.

The International Crisis Group has also called for the international community to be bolder in identifying, and potentially sanctioning, those responsible for violence and for blocking the electoral process.