Elections in ivory coast: the great fear

In Ivory Coast, President Ouattara is running for re-election on Saturday. Opponents are calling for a boycott. Dozens have already died in the election campaign.

The police station set on fire by opposition militants in the town of Bonoua on Aug. 13 Photo: Luc Ghago/reuters

BONOUA/ Fernand Wognin Sangha is busy. In the blazing midday sun, he hands out T-shirts with the portrait of President Alassane Ouattara. He checks that the white and blue plastic chairs are standing neatly and checks the music system. Two hours remain before the Ivory Coast’s health minister is due to arrive in Bonoua. An important visit for the town, thinks Fernand Wognin Sangha, youth organizer of the ruling RHDP (Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and the People) in the town. That the 78-year-old president will not come in person is a pity, but all right, he says. "He can’t be everywhere so close to the election," says the young politician.

Bonoua, the "capital of pineapple cultivation" a good hour’s drive from the Ivorian economic metropolis of Abidjan, is actually considered a bastion of Ouattara’s erstwhile arch-enemy and civil war opponent Laurent Gbagbo and his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). For Sangha, however, this confrontation is outdated. Much has changed in the past decade, he says, and Ouattara has gained popularity.

Nonetheless, serious unrest erupted in Bonoua in mid-August when Ouattara announced his candidacy for a third term – while Gbagbo, who lost power with his 2010 election defeat to Ouattara and ended up before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the subsequent unrest and fighting that left 3,000 dead, was not allowed to run. The reason: He had been sentenced to imprisonment in absentia in the Ivory Coast. And the appeal proceedings in The Hague following his acquittal are still ongoing; he is currently living in Belgium.

When it became clear that Ouattara would run again, the police station in Bonoua burned down. Today, market women have long since set up their stalls around it again. But no one has yet cleared away the empty building and the wrecked cars.

Only a few meters away stands Roger Kadjo Adje in a light blue polo shirt. "We here in Bonoua do not cheat. We fight to the last," says the FPI supporter. He feels betrayed by Ouattara, who had assured for years that 2020 would be the end for him. Many people would feel the same way, he claims. What angers him most, he says, is the disproportionality. "We demonstrate and they act as if we are at war. They have heavy weapons." Nor, he said, did the opposition have a chance to express its displeasure peacefully. "We talked to the commissioner, to all the people in charge. But there was never a permit for a demonstration."

At least 30 people have died in protests and unrest in Côte d’Ivoire since August, and the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor expressed "grave concern about the escalation of violence" on Wednesday. What is clear, compared to previous elections, is that violence is escalating earlier and earlier. Four young people died in Bonoua in August, and there have been more deaths since then. "We have lost a lot," Kadjo Adje says of the past ten weeks.

Fear of election day

A woman who has lost everything lies on a cot two streets away in front of her house. Therèse Adje looks impassively at a group of women who have just paid her a visit. On 19. October, her 25-year-old son Armel died. "A good boy, so quiet, so kind. Someone who always helped me and ran errands for me," the gaunt woman in the blue and yellow dress says after a while. The family has printed out large photos of the deceased, and his mother keeps looking at them.

Thèrese Adje and Frèdèric Kissel with a photo of their son who was killed during the protests in Bonoua Photo: Katrin Gansler

Armel was an accidental victim. The young man had something to do in town that Monday morning. He did not come back. In the afternoon, his father Frederic Kissi was called to the city hall. The body of his son had been brought there.

Therèse Adje is dreading the coming Saturday, election day. She will not vote. "I don’t have a voter card at all." For health reasons, she had not been able to apply for it. Until the 25th According to the election commission, only 41 percent of the nearly 7.5 million registered voters had picked up their cards entitling them to vote – very few for a country with a population of over 27 million.

This is perhaps also due to the fact that large parts of the opposition are calling for an "active boycott" of the election. No one can or wants to predict what will happen on election day. Tweets by Guillaume Soro, the former rebel leader, are causing speculation. Soro was for a time considered Ouattara’s successor, but has lived in exile in France since 2019 and was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for embezzlement in April. He is thus disqualified as a presidential candidate. But Soro blithely tweets that on Oct. 31 the Ouattara era will end. Sometimes also that there will be no elections at all. It is unclear how much support he has in the country. One thing is certain, however: His statements are taken seriously.

The security forces of the Ivory Coast are on the alert. Between Bonoua and Abidjan, they stop cars and check papers. In the center of Abidjan, where the skyscrapers of the economic metropolis of Francophone West Africa form an impressive skyline, there is not much election advertising to be seen. Every now and then, a poster of Ouattara pops up, but there are far fewer than five years ago. The so-called Adopark – "Ado" is Ouattara’s nickname – at the Mel Theodore traffic circle is also small. His campaigners have set up a stage, the music is deafening, and everyone who comes receives a green T-shirt. But there is no real party mood. Only RHDP sympathizers and young people are brought along anyway. Those who have questions will not get answers here.

Calls to boycott the elections

From time to time there are some flags in the city, on which KKB is written. The initials, which always provoke laughter in conversations, stand for Kouadio Konan Bertin. The 51-year-old, who won 3.9 percent in the 2015 elections as a non-party candidate, presents himself as a youth candidate. Although he is a good thirty years older than the average age in Côte d’Ivoire, he is also almost thirty years younger than the president.

KKB is the only opposition candidate who does not call for "active boycott" and civil disobedience. FPI candidate Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Henri Konan Bedie of the PDCI (Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire) do. The PDCI ruled the country from 1960 to 1999; Bedie was its last head of state from 1993 to 1999 and has been part of the seemingly eternal Ivorian power triangle with Ouattara and Gbagbo for decades. If one of the three continues, the others cannot retreat.

In front of Bedie’s campaign headquarters in the Cocody district, however, there is at first nothing to suggest a boycott. Everything still looks like an election campaign, and large green and white posters promise that the 86-year-old will bring verve and new momentum to politics. Behind the big green gate, however, there is a sluggish silence. Hardly anyone is there. The communications department says it had wanted to organize a protest march on Wednesday, but had not invited the press. There is little sign of the big boycott.

FPI candidate Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who came in second behind Ouattara five years ago with 9.2 percent, is more vocal. He was once a confidant of Gbagbo, but is not considered a hardliner in the FPI, which had led to a split. He cannot motivate and inspire the masses like Gbagbo, and he lacks support. These days, however, the 67-year-old is coming out attacking. "For us, on the 31st. October no elections," he says. He says it is already clear that what happens on that day is not credible and cannot be recognized. Gbagbo himself expressed a similar view: "We are heading for a catastrophe," he said in a radio interview in Belgium on Thursday.

However, the opposition has not attracted attention in recent months with substantive work on the country’s future. Instead, everything is geared toward confrontation. On Thursday night, cars burned in Abidjan’s FPI stronghold of Yopougon, and a man was found stabbed to death. As Election Day approaches, the police and gendarmerie are more present at intersections in Abidjan. Entire neighborhoods are coordinating with each other via WhatsApp: Should the gates to the housing complexes remain closed on Saturday? Can someone sell drinks there just in case?

In Bonoua, Therese Adje carefully strokes her son’s photo. She remains silent. She has nothing to do with politics. But there is one thing she cannot understand: that the fronts are so hardened. "I don’t understand why it keeps escalating, why tear gas is used and demonstrators are shot at. Why can’t the politicians sit down and talk to each other?"

The youth representatives of the parties in Bonoua are leading the way. Roger Kadjo Adje and Fernand Wognin Sangha know each other well and exchange ideas. They both agree that they do not want to see violence like that of the past weeks again. "At the end of the day, we are brothers. That’s more important than all the arguments," says Fernand Wognin Sangha.