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Who will be Côte d’Ivoire’s new Moses?

By Monica Mark in Abidjan
Posted on Friday, 17 September 2010 16:29

Despite the long-awaited announcement of an election date for 31 October, key issues remain unresolved. And while a younger generation grows impatient for change, the old has yet to give way to the new.

In a small house near Abidjan’s industrial quarter of Port Bouet, Ivorian intellectual and writer Venance Konan cuts to the heart of the matter. “If Gbagbo isn’t president of this country, then who will be?” he asks. “We are looking for a leader, but who will be our Moses?” It is a question asked by others, irrespective of sector or class, in a capital whose industrial strength might once have led it to be christened the ‘Paris of Africa’ but which is now stagnating amid an almost 10-year-old crisis.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of independence and after years of postponements, the government announced in August that 31 October would be the new date for national elections. The country has been in a state of suspended animation since President Laurent Gbagbo’s mandate expired in 2005. But the stakes for politicians and ordinary Ivorians in a nation divided into a government-held south and rebel-controlled north is no longer just a question of when elections will be held. With 70% of the population aged between 18 to 30 years old and poverty levels rising to 49% in 2008 from 10% in 1985, the game has changed.

Appealing to the largely urban youth is the key challenge faced by the three men who have dominated Ivorian politics since 1993. Having spent 11 years opposing the kleptocratic post-independence leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Gbagbo was seen as a Moses himself. Now his opponents emphasise his apparent refusal or inability to organise elections.

The opposition Rassemblement des Houphouétistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix(RHDP) coalition is a marriage of convenience between four opposition parties. The two main opposition challengers, Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Dramane Ouattara, face charges of overstaying in the political arena. The Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) have revolved around their iconic personalities for over a ?decade – almost two in Bédié’s case.

Not-peace, not-war?

Aged 65, 76 and 68 respectively, Gbagbo, Bédié and Ouattara’s refusal to engage in any public dialogue or pass the baton to a new generation speaks almost as loudly as the internal party bickering that has spilled into the public domain in recent months.

A poll organised last year by French pollsters TNS Sofres on behalf of the ruling Front Populaire Ivorien showed that Gbagbo was the country’s most popular politician but that even he could not garner enough support to win a simple majority in the first round of the presidential polls. One year on, impatience continues to mount, and the top politicians seem unable to mobilise support from outside of their bases. That means that formation of political alliances in the second round will be of crucial importance.

The battleground is to a large extent ethnic, with the nationalistic ideology of Ivoirité serving to cleave the country into northern and southern zones. Each of the major parties has its base of support: Gbagbo commands the Bété vote in the West, Bédié’s PDCI relies on the Baoulé of the south, centre and east, while Ouattara represents northern ethnic groups and the numerous immigrants from Burkina Faso and Mali who are ethnically related to them. Questions surrounding the nationality of those migrants was one of the main drivers of the situation of ‘not-peace, not-war’ that has divided the country between north and south since 2002.

Generation gap

The TNS Sofres poll also showed the growth of a young electorate based in the cities. Seen as essential arrows in the ageing politicians’ quivers, today’s youth leaders emerged in the 1990s from the violent student movement, the Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire(Fesci). Notable among them are prime minister and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, pro-Gbagbo youth leader Charles Blé Goudé and RDR youth leader Yayoro Karamoko. All of them parachuted into power after occupying high-ranking posts in the movement, which is still powerful and feared on campuses.

The key battles in the changing electoral landscape are in the north. Soro, who was appointed prime minister under a 2007 peace deal between the government and the former-rebel Forces Nouvelles, has acted as a buffer. At 38, he is still too young to run for the presidency, but in recent months has shown a chameleon-like ability to manoeuvre on the political field.

In July, he retired as secretary general of the Forces Nouvelles, ostensibly to concentrate on the task of organising credible elections. The move also gives him a new independence and distance from the rebel movement. It remains to be seen if Soro will be able to capture the northern support base from which he has been slowly but steadily disengaging himself.

Like the RDR, the Forces Nouvelles rely heavily on a northern base, and analysts speculate that the two parties could merge to broaden their support bases. “It is premature to start saying we want to be a political party,” says Forces Nouvelles special counsel, Affissa Bamba. “We didn’t originally enter into this combat with the objective of getting power. But if the political domain is the best way to continue our battle, that may be the future.”

Moreover, there are questions as to whether the Forces Nouvelles – much like the ruling party – are in a hurry to change the current set-up. Unhindered by the central government, Forces Nouvelles rebels earn income through illegal roadblocks and smuggling diamonds, arms and cocoa along the porous Burkina Faso, Malian and Guinean borders. The World Bank estimates roadblocks throughout the country bring in between 150bn-300bn CFA francs ($294m-$588m) annually.

Meanwhile, in government-controlled territory, the charismatic Blé Goudé, leader of the pro-Gbagbo Jeunes Patriotes, has eclipsed his former Fesci colleague, Soro, as a youth leader. Notorious for organising violent demonstrations, he is able to mobilise thousands of youths at Gbagbo’s bidding. “France,” he says proudly, “has never been able to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo because in all their plans, they were never prepared for me.” ?

Blé Goudé, who is under UN travel and financial sanctions, spoke at a press conference earlier this year about a “conflict of generations” at the heart of Ivorian politics. He is as reviled by his opponents as he is embraced by his supporters, especially after the Jeunes Patriotes helped to organise several days of anti-French riots in 2004, which led to the evacuation of 8,000 foreigners. “It is possible to be branded a terrorist today and a hero tomorrow. One has to be patient. Twenty years from now I’ll be 58. Politically speaking, that’s young,” he says.

Possible candidates

However, none of the youth leaders will be allowed to seize power as long as those who bankroll them are still on the scene, says Adama Dahico. A popular comedian of Malian origin, Dahico made waves when he became the third politician to register his candidacy in September 2009.

A middle generation of the political class has also began to emerge, both within the parties and in the highly-skilled private sector. In the FPI camp, the battle lines have been drawn between close Gbagbo ally and interior minister Desiré Tagro and National Assembly president Mamadou Koulibaly. Party president and former prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan is another name frequently mentioned in discussions of future heavyweights. All three are under 60 years old. The FPI leadership has also been shaken up by scandals in the cocoa sector, which has been a traditional source of campaign funding.

The former telecommunications minister, Hamed Bakayoko, 45, counts a crucial following of young RDR supporters and has also been touted for succession. A series of highly public disagreements between Bédié and former bank governor Charles Konan Banny on the PDCI’s direction mean the latter’s presidential ambitions are now well-known.

The private sector also has actors who are increasingly making their voices heard in political circles: 48-year-old Thierry Tanoh, a vice-president of the International Finance Corporation; Atlantic Bank managing director Charles Kié, 48; and Mariam Dao Gabala, regional director of microcredit giant Oikocredit.

Election issues?

Elections, if held, will only speed up a process already taking place. On the one hand, the opposition marriage of convenience looks unlikely to hold beyond a first round of polling. Northerners who once placed their hope in Ouattara have been waiting in vain since 1993 for a result from their candidate. Supporters of Bédié’s PDCI are unlikely to vote for Ouattara in the event of a second round, as the party still nurtures a strong connection with the nationalistic concept of Ivoirité. They also have not failed to notice that their own leader continues to parrot the same ideology as 15 years ago, but the septuagenarian has often wrong-footed the powerful Fesci.

Election announcements have come and gone before and key issues have yet to be resolved: the disarmament of the former rebels and creation of mixed north-south brigades; the issuing of new identity cards; rationalising the voter roles – the list is long and potentially explosive.

Many powerful interests in business and politics continue to prefer the status quo. Quarrels remain to be resolved around opposition-party access to the media and the contentious management of the electoral commission, which manages the day-to-day preparations for the upcoming elections. The first task, and one of the most difficult, is to settle on a definitive electoral register, an issue which begs the essential question of who has the right to call themselves Ivorian. Even as Gbagbo announced the new date for polls and reaffirmed the necessity of disarming the northern rebels, Prime Minister Soro insisted that the polls and disarmament have nothing to do with each other.

But each passing year brings fresh frustrations. Whether or not Gbagbo manages to cling to power, the FPI cannot survive as it is today without him. For all his political genius, there are whispers of support for someone coming out from the army as a better – if only temporary – alternative. A new dawn may be breaking over the political landscape, but cloudy days still lie ahead.

Read the full investigation in the October-November edition of The Africa Report, on sale now. Click below for a preview or subscribe to The Africa Report via our online store.

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