People across Abidjan shuttered shops and offices and rushed home fearing violence after the Constitutional Council on 3 December declared Laurent Gbagbo winner of Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election – nullifying provisional results released by the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) the previous day.
The CEI had named Alassane Ouattara the winner, taking 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Gbagbo. But rejecting the CEI’s work, the Constitutional Council ruled for Gbagbo, giving him 51 percent of the vote against 49 for Ouattara. The Council discounted the votes from seven departments in the north – generally areas favouring Ouattara – noting “flagrant irregularities”.
News of the dramatic turnaround brought people onto to the streets in some neighbourhoods of Abidjan, the economic capital, some reportedly burning cars and shops. A local resident in the Marcory area said: “It‘s calm here for now, but people fear things could quickly degenerate. You see smoke coming from neighbouring districts and you think: ‘that means buildings are being burned’. People are wary.”
“From now everything is possible from demonstrations to civil war,” International Crisis Group senior West Africa analyst Rinaldo Depagne told IRIN.
Ivoirians and the international community had hoped the long-overdue elections would put the country on the road to ending eight years of bitter and often violent division. An insurgency that started with a coup attempt in September 2002 led to the de facto partition of Côte d’Ivoire, with rebels occupying a vast part of the country, particularly the north.
The 28 November run-off election pitted Gbagbo against his long-time political rival Ouattara in a contest that took place against a backdrop of inter-ethnic tensions and political polarization.
While both rounds of voting went ahead without major disruption, the post-election period brought a return of the volatility that has accompanied previous elections, with both sides accusing the other of strong-arm tactics amidst a barrage of appeals for calm from the UN, the United States, the African Union and others.
The announcement of completely different sets of results by two key institutions has presented the UN with a particularly difficult scenario. Speaking shortly after the Constitutional Council’s announcement of a Gbagbo victory, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Côte d’Ivoire Y. J. Choi recognized the results issued by the CEI, making Ouattara the winner. The Security Council has already warned from New York of the need to respect the CEI’s work and hinted at measures that could be taken if the right procedures are not respected.
A senior official with Gbagbo’s Front Populaire ivoirien party dismissed external players, saying that Côte d‘Ivoire would take little notice of external criticism on the handling of the elections.
“We do not need the international community.” He said that the incumbent would now show himself to be a truly national leader, “bringing all Ivorians together and establishing the state’s authority across national territory.”
But Crisis Group’s Depagne and other watchers say Gbagbo’s staying in power would mean the country would remain divided. Even when the Ggabgo government on 2 December ordered borders closed, borders with Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea and Mali in the rebel north remained open, residents in the north told IRIN.
Depagne said Gbagbo and his entourage appear to be looking solely at the immediate goal of staying in power.
“If his only objective is to keep power, he can do it. But what kind of power would he have? None of the money pledged by donors and private investors would come in. It would be a rogue state for the next two or three years; an unending legal row is also likely.”
People in the centre-north town of Bouaké – the rebels’ base since the 2002 uprising – say they will not accept the reversal, a Ouattara supporter there told IRIN.
“What I am hearing from people is that Alassane Ouattara is the president – that makes him the head of state and they are not going to accept what comes from Laurent Gbagbo.”
He warned there is likely to be strong resistance within the military. “My impression is that most soldiers voted for Ouattara. I am sure that within 48 hours there will be a military uprising. If people do not watch it, the country is going to head back to war.”
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “Laurent Gbagbo has acted with utter disregard for the rights of his people to freely and fairly elect their leader, a right they have waited way too long to exercise.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]