Three continents, two connections and one day later I finally land at the Abidjan International Airport as an International Observer for the second round of presidential elections between the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and opposition leader Alessane Ouattara – elections designed to end the decade long civil unrest which effectively split the country over questions of ethnic identity and voting rights.
The chaos and humidity feels instantly liberating in spite of the disorienting cross continental shifts in time zones and culture. Bold campaign ads run along the sweeping bridges connecting this sprawling coastal city once known as the Paris of Africa, highlighting the political stakes.
A large billboard of a woman in her thirties with a troubled face and only one arm comes into view over and over again as we round the beautiful lagoon and the lush vegetation that sets off the modern skyline in the distance. It says she is a war victim and the caption reads: “Between my baby and my arm, I chose my baby. For Peace I choose Gbagbo”– somewhat manipulative but I get the point.
Ouattara for his part, is playing his cards as a modern man, chief economist and ex-Africa Director of the IMF, rallying under a Houphouëtist alliance to evoke the post-independence days of plenty under President Houphouët-Boigny. His main liability is to be born to a Burkinabe mother therefore of questionable Ivorian identity; a point conveniently manipulated by political adversaries to infuse
mistrust and create alliances where tribal networks often take the place of democratic institutions and ethnic cleavages are exploited for mobility.
Mathias, my Observation team mate is also from Burkina Faso -- laid back, familiar and completely unperturbed by time and protocol, appearing and disappearing as he pleases, making calls in the middle of meetings where the sandal wearing attendees talk over the continuous ring of
their own mobiles and calmly ignore the squeaky doors that keep opening and closing.
He chit chats freely and inserts sexual innuendos where, when and with whomever he pleases. He says all Burkinabe’s are like that. Friendly. For the most part it generates a few giggles from the ladies and brings an easy flow to our otherwise rigorous and packed schedule. I wonder if his nationality could compromise his Observer status considering his country is viewed by some
as a French proxy supporting Ouattara.
A few nights before the elections I watched a televised debate between the two candidates moderated by a character best described as a cross between Felix the Cat and Larry King in terms of his unusually large head on a small upper body. The incumbent desperately struggled to distance himself from the last decade of violence and economic hardships promising new beginnings; a transformation of national industry of largely cocoa and coffee production, combined with a strong focus on social programs.
Ouattara in contrast presented himself as a modern man; one who is running on a liberal platform bolstered by massive help from the IMF and increased foreign investment. One does not need to be an expert to pick the candidate of choice for the West, but Gbagbo passed up the opportunity to point out his counterpart as a potential agent for further debt and possible foreign influence, instead focusing on Ouatarra’s part in the conflict. Remarkably, the Larry King character resisted any attempt to sensationalize, showing more elegance than his American counterpart -- a reminder that the commercial synergies of news and entertainment have yet to be discovered in Africa.
The pre-elections atmosphere is one of intense mistrust, at times bordering on paranoia. Stories circulate that the pens provided at the polling stations are
rigged with disappearing ink, effacing the votes for your candidate. How the pen determines where the voter crosses seems irrelevant. After all, Africa is the land of myth and magic where fetishes are
omnipresent, ancient tribal chiefs are more important than corporations who would bank roll their favorite candidates; and rebels and machetes are part of the political process.
As we interview the officials at the Local Commission about the elaborate cross check procedures for the final results, the lady president of the center arrives breathless in her long ruffled skirt, whisks us away into her private office and informs us she is being chased by opposition partisans.
“They blocked me at the airport,” she lays out all three of her cells phones, takes out a white handkerchief and delicately dabs the sweat around her neck and chocolate décolleté; “They confiscated the staff salaries I
had in the pouch and threatened me with bodily harm.
“They. who?” Asks Mathias.
“They! The militants. The youth!” Her gold bracelets jingle as she talks.
“How many were they?” I scribble away.
“A lot?! Like how many? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She waves away the heat and a couple of mosquitoes. “A lot!” She says with a definitive nod.
“Liar!” Mathias mumbles under his breath as we leave. “What was she doing at the airport with all that money anyway?”
Another official says he has information from a very credible source that one agent in every voting station has been bribed one thousand dollars a day to change the results.
“Who is this source?”
“Well. Madame. I can not say.” He leans back in his plastic
chair and smiles cryptically, revealing the yellow buildup of years of bad
hygiene around the margins of his teeth that matches the color of the
sunflowers on his shirt. “But he is very reliable.”yes"">
“Ah oui?” Asks Mathias
Anticipation steadily builds. Candidates and their respective spokesmen issue press releases pretending a veneer of calm, each magnanimously promising to uphold the final results, more likely signaling how the other should behave when he loses. Meanwhile, Mr. Ouatarra and entourage
have taken over one wing at my hotel. He startles me as he says “bonsoir Madame,” and passes by in the hallway, then disappears among the guards and the blue helmets. Like any high class hotel de luxe in Africa, The Golf doubles as an opposition hideout and evacuation center on account of its convenient location by the lagoon and coveted helipad. After all, last time there was political unrest Mr. Outattara’s house was burnt down.
One more thing. As a last minute tactic, Mr. Gbagbo declares a curfew in spite of the pleas of the U.N., who rightly insists it would further complicate the logistics. Many wonder whether this is an attempt to short circuit the turnout since the security instruments who would enforce the
curfew are also Gbagbo loyalists. What is certain is that the combination of transportation challenges, mistrust and the elaborate manual tabulations meansonly one thing – delays.
Predictably, on Election Day polls open late. Mathias and I walk past the long lines of voters growing under the large canopies of the avocado trees outside a primary school turned polling station. We sit staring at the sealed box of ballots which is to be opened only in front of the party representatives. They finally arrive after 45 minutes. “Curfew. Taxi problems;” they say sheepishly and squeeze behind their tiny wooden desks.
The polling finally starts: Stickers -- registration list – ballots -- signature -- indelible ink – stamp – all ok.
As the sun rises up in the sky to smolder and burn off the shadows throughout the day, the steady stream of voters mark their candidate of choice in the cardboard isolation booth that stands in a corner. Many come prepared with their own pens and find their suspicions confirmed when Mathias repeatedly tries to talk them into using the “official” ones in the stations. “He is only teasing.” I would smile and say.
As we randomly pick stations, observe the day and mark the scores, we appreciate the depth of the economic crisis in the neglected residential neighborhoods and feel the frustration of those who want to put the last ten years behind them and to once again shine as the star of West Africa.
We discuss nuances of identity; listen to the indignant few who claim they have identified neighbors of “questionable” origin and counter with stories of our own to demonstrate that identities do not have to be static if you keep an open mind and extend justice throughout society. At the end, it is the umbrella of the economic system that needs to include and align the interests. Regardless of who wins, it is incumbent upon him to hold out his hand to the vanquished, who must in turn negotiate the limits of his love for his country.
As the polls finally close and the ballot box seals are cut, a heavy set woman in long flowy purple-wear is chosen at our station to read the results. The observers, representatives and agents all take their places as she opens each ballot, patiently reading and holding up the name for all to see. A young girl marks the results in plain view on the blackboard. I don’t see how the supposed undercover agent we were tipped off about by the “credible” informant, could possibly earn his $1,000 keep. If the party representatives moved up any further in their chairs, they would surely keel
Gbagbo Laurent……Gbagbo Laurent…..Alessane Ouattara….The girl at the blackboard makes neat little rows of squares and strikes them through in batches of five.
Gbagbo Laurent…..A cell phone ring with a festive African beat breaks the intensity of the room.yes""> The purple lady puts down the ballot and waddles over calmly, reaching into her purse.
The various agents, all four party representatives and the two of us hold our positions and wait in silence. What sounds like a single gunshot in the distance momentarily distracts us. We throw a quizzical glance
at each other, shrug and once again fix our gazes back on the lady who is still
on the phone.
“I will be late,” she says. “No, I can’t. I am counting votes now.”
She hangs up and waddles back unhurried. No excuses. No sign of impatience from anyone. She picks up where she left off.
Gbagbo Laurent…..more squares continue to fill the rows underneath the two names before the same party music once again breaks our concentration. This time the chief of the bureau gets up and brings over the happy bag.yes""> The lady opens it and reaches in elbow deep to produce
the bouncing contraption.
Once again everyone freezes like an old children’s game.
This time she switches into dialect but I understand the word pommes-de-terre; something about potatoes.
“….and the charcoal is where it always is – look in the green basket.”
“You’ve made us all hungry now,” says Mathias as she hangs up.
Everything is relative and urgencies take on a different form depending on the context. Maybe we, in the West could use a little serving of “pomme-de-terre” here and there within our serious institutions.
The little squares rapidly fill up on Gbagbo’s side of the blackboard. But this is Abidjan -- the loyalists’ stronghold. The North is sure to be a different story judging by the first round,
why else would they need to send reinforcements to “secure” the area.
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The lobby at the Golf Hotel is filling up by the hour. All flights have been cancelled and the curfew continues. The results should have been declared, first by last night – then by this morning and now planned again for later release at midnight no doubt for maximum control. Gbagbo is already
contesting the results calling foul play in some of the regions and earlier this morning one of his supporters snatched the ballot results in plain view of the cameras as the officials prepared to make an announcement.
A large man is twirling a carved wooden figurine with tresses that swing back and forth every time he rolls it between his palms. He says it is to awaken the powers.
Mr. Ouattara’s spokesman sits at the adjacent table. As one of the main figures of the party walks into the lobby, he is swallowed whole by a circle of journalists and cameras who scramble for a statement. I make my way over and squeeze
“I proclaim Mr. Ouattara, the President of the Republic of Ivory Coast.” He says the results leave no doubt. Mr. Gbagbo is contesting the results of four regions in the North, “These regions went to Mr.
Ouattara on the first round. We have worked ten years for this moment. It is time for Mr. Gbagbo to
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This morning I wake up to two sets of official results.
Independent Electoral Commission:
Gbagbo – 45.9%
Outattara – 54.10%
Gbagbo – 51.45%
Ouattara – 48.55%
Gbagbo is refusing to concede. The head of the Constitutional Council, close to Gbagbo and contrary to the results of the Independent Elections Commission has sided with him, voiding the polls from all the contentious regions in the north. They say it is good to have friends in high places. Gendarmes have broken into the opposition’s headquarters and killed some of the members. Angry
riots are breaking out.
As the international community, Obama and Sarkozy extend their congratulations to Ouattara, Gbagbo is asking the United Nations to leave and denounces foreign intrigue behind the support for his rival.
Both men are sworn in as Presidents. So much for reconciliation.
Power is intoxicating – painful to relinquish. For all the patriotic sermons that politicians deliver for public consumption whether in Washington, Tehran or Abidjan, love of country is a worthless currency stamped with the face of its people, bartered and manipulated for a far more tangible asset.
Hold off on making those travel arrangements for the Paris of Africa. The shining star is having electrical problems.
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