By Marco Chown Oved
ABOVE PHOTO: Presidential candidate Alssane Ouattara casts his ballot in the first round of presidential elections in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Sunday Nov. 31, 2010. The West African nation of Ivory Coast held a long-awaited presidential election Sunday, the first since civil war erupted in 2002 and split the world’s leading cocoa producer in half.
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The two candidates in Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election took dueling oaths of office last weekend after each claimed victory, as the political crisis spiraled out of control and renewed unrest in this country once split in two by civil war.
Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo defied calls from the United States, France and the United Nations to concede defeat, wrapping himself in the Ivorian flag as he was sworn in for another term. Hours later, opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara announced that he too had taken his own oath.
Saturday’s developments leave Ivory Coast with two men who both claim to be president, furthering inflaming the political chaos in the West African nation whose once-prosperous economy was destroyed by the brief 2002-2003 civil war.
U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy say Ouattara is the rightful winner and that his victory must be acknowledged. The top U.N. official in Ivory Coast is also standing by results released Thursday by the country’s election commission that put Ouattara ahead.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “deep concern over the continuing standoff,” his spokesperson said in a statement Saturday.
Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader who had served in a unity government with Gbagbo since a 2007 peace deal, said Saturday he was backing Ouattara, who is wildly popular in the formerly rebel-held north. Ouattara said his first act as president was to reappoint Soro.
“These last days have been difficult but I can tell you now that Ivory Coast is in good hands,” Ouattara said just hours after Gbagbo held his inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace.
At his swearing-in, Gbagbo renewed allegations that his supporters had been intimidated in the north, repeating the rationale used by the country’s constitutional council to throw out a half million ballots that were cast in Ouattara strongholds.
“You think that you can cheat, stuff ballot boxes and intimidate voters and that the other side won’t see what is going on,” Gbagbo said.
Ivory Coast’s long-awaited presidential election was meant to restore stability in what was once one of the most affluent countries in Africa. Instead, the election has cast a growing shadow as the country now faces two political rivals who each claim to be leading the country.
Each has his own army, his own support network and his own legal framework for governing. Gbagbo has the support of the regular army, while Ouattara is supported by the New Forces rebels. Gbagbo is supported by the many of the country’s most important institutions including the constitutional council and the state media, while Ouattara is backed with foreign endorsements.
Gbagbo says he is the rightful winner of the runoff vote, citing the Ivorian constitution that gives ultimate authority on the issue to the country’s constitutional council, which declared him the winner.
However, Ouattara points to the 2007 peace deal, which states that the United Nations must certify the election results. The U.N. maintains the vote was credible, and that Ouattara won the presidential election.
Last Saturday, Ouattara supporters took to the streets, burning tires and a table in one neighborhood.
“The risk of violence between supporters of the two parties, as well as repression by Ivorian security forces against real or perceived supporters of Ouattara, is very high,” Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The country was placed on lockdown immediately after the commission announced Ouattara’s win on Thursday, with a decree read on state TV saying the nation’s air and land borders had been closed.
A nationwide curfew keeps people off the streets every night at 7 p.m. and all foreign media have been pulled from radio and television, leaving Ivorians with only Gbagbo’s version of events, repeated incessantly on state television.
The only station reporting Ouattara’s victory was U.N. radio, which was briefly pulled from the air Saturday morning, before it began broadcasting again on a different frequency a few hours later.
Gbagbo’s five-year mandate expired in 2005 and the country’s first election in a decade was delayed multiple times. He claimed first that the country was too volatile and that security could not be assured. He later cited technicalities like the composition of the voter roll.
The election went ahead in October but then headed to a runoff vote last Sunday. The country’s election commission announced Thursday that Ouattara had won. However, new results released Friday on national television by a Gbagbo loyalist who heads the constitutional council said that the incumbent president had in fact been re-elected.
A former International Monetary Fund economist, Ouattara became the icon of Ivory Coast’s downtrodden immigrant community in a nation that became a magnet in the region because of its prosperity. Ouattara, born in the north, had been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian, and that he was of Burkinabe origin.