Ivory Coast elections are set for next month, but fears of violence and more delays growing

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fears of election violence growing in Ivory Coast

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast’s long-overdue presidential elections are set for next month, but doubts in the current leadership and protests are fueling fears of violence and delays.

The Oct. 31 election is being hailed as the first truly free contest in the country’s history because all three historic political heavyweights — President Laurent Gbagbo, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara and former President Henri Konan Bedie — are running head-to-head for the first time.

The three contenders met last week and said they were sure that the election would go smoothly, but some opposition party members worry that such proclamations are a cover and the government is preparing for the worst.

“We suspect (President) Laurent Gbagbo wants to implicate the army in the electoral process,” Anne Ouloto, spokeswoman for the main opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara, told the press last week.

In the past month President Gbagbo has replaced more than a dozen prefects and police chiefs and told them to stop at nothing to safeguard the elections.

“We ask the police to subdue all those who are against the republic,” Gbagbo said at a police station inauguration in Divo at the end of August. “You have enemies — I say enemies, not opponents — and the enemies are all those who want to disrupt the elections.”

Ouloto said these kinds of statements are simply veiled threats aimed at the opposition.

“We suspect (Gbagbo’s party) wants to use the army for its own interests in order to maintain power,” she said. “A climate of terror is being imposed by (the party) to prevent Ivoirians from carrying out their civic duty.”

After eight years of civil war and political crisis, the world’s largest cocoa producer produced a finalized voter list earlier this month, bringing it closer than it’s ever been to elections. But the country has already set and missed six election dates, and October marks five years since Gbagbo’s term in office expired — the equivalent of a second, unelected term.

Richard Moncrieff, Africa director at the International Crisis Group said the deal was key, but elections may still be “catastrophic.”

“Elections are a key opportunity for trouble,” Moncrieff said.

Last week, former rebels in northern Ivory Coast received their long-overdue severance pay, easing worries that the demobilization process would not be completed.

Disarmament of armed groups is a precondition to holding a presidential election that has been delayed since 2005. Completing the process has been a priority since the election date was set.

In the northern city of Korhogo, 1,500 ex-rebels each received 100,000 francs (US$204) last week to help them start a new life after having served eight years in a rebellion.

However, in local media, militia leaders have decried the payments of former rebels. They claim their members, who fought to protect the government, deserve equal treatment. To make their point, last week several pro-goverment militia groups took over a government building in the western city of Daloa. They demanded that they receive the same demobilization payments as the rebels.

The groups also took to the streets across the country last week.

These self-styled patriotic defense groups were formed spontaneously after a failed coup d’etat in 2002 split the country between a rebel-controlled north and a government-controlled south. Their eagerness to seek out rebels and rebel sympathizers frequently turned to violence and lynchings.

The groups have been accused of committing human rights violations by both international groups and the U.N.

“These people come from a culture of stirring up violence in order to be bought off,” Moncrieff said. Gbagbo’s supporters “have always considered street violence as an option.”

Against this backdrop, there have been recent reports to indicate that groups are secretly re-arming themselves. The U.N. reported last year that despite an arms embargo, both the rebels and the government were smuggling weapons into the country. An army colonel was arrested in New York two weeks ago after attempting to purchase almost $4 million worth of handguns, ammunition and tear gas grenades.

The government now admits that the colonel, Yao N’Guessan, was sent to the U.S. to purchase crowd control weapons for the police, a violation of U.N. sanctions that have been in force since 2004.

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