Ivory Coast election a crucial crossroads

AP News
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Posted: Oct 30, 2010 1:00 PM
Ivory Coast election a crucial crossroads

Eleven years ago, Idrissa Ouedraogo was called to pick up a government-issued identity card cementing his right to full citizenship in the country where he was born.

Instead, the policeman behind the counter pulled out a pair of scissors and cut the card to shreds as he looked on stunned, too fearful to say a word.

The debate over who is really Ivorian is at the heart of Sunday's election in this war-divided West African nation, where foreigners _ mostly immigrants who came to work on cocoa and coffee plantations _ make up more than a quarter of the population of 20 million.

Tension over the issue has spurred war in a country that produces more of the raw material for chocolate than any other on the planet, and a mistrust so deep it has delayed this weekend's long-awaited ballot for five years.

This month, Ouedraogo _ whose parents were both born in Ivory Coast but whose last name is common in neighboring Burkina Faso _ finally got his identity card. And with it he will vote for the first time, along with millions more like him.

The hope is that the vote will reunite Ivory Coast and pave the way for a more peaceful future. But with powerful militias still running loose in the west, ex-rebels still armed in the north, and political parties still backed by hardcore youth militants ready to take to the streets if things don't go their way, it could also trigger more bloodshed.

"This is a defining moment for the Ivorian people," United Nations special envoy Young-jin Choi told The Associated Press in an interview at his office in the main city, Abidjan, from where he oversees a 9,000-strong peacekeeping force.

The days ahead, he said, "will decide whether they live up to this unique chance."

Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, whose official mandate expired in 2005, is facing 13 challengers, including opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who is popular in the pro-rebel north. Also running is ex-president Henri Konan Bedie. Despite their differences, Bedie and Ouattara have promised to support each other against Gbagbo if neither wins enough votes to avoid a Nov. 28 runoff.

The former French colony's reputation as a model of political stability in a region better known for conflict was shattered after its first coup in 1999, when Bedie was overthrown.

The crisis reached rock bottom in 2002: Fighting erupted for several days in skyscraper-lined Abidjan itself, once known as the "Paris of Africa" for its cosmopolitan nightlife and chic boutiques. It was the start of a civil war that ended months later in a stalemate that left rebels in control of the northern half of the country and the lawless west in the hands of myriad militia groups.

A breakthrough came in 2007 with a peace deal that saw rebel leader Guillaume Soro appointed prime minister in a unity government. A roadmap for elections was drawn up, but the painstaking process of deciding who would legitimately be allowed to vote _ differentiating between real foreigners and native Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries _ dragged on for years.

"The reality is, our country is still divided," said Traore Drissa, a prominent lawyer who runs the Abidjan-based Ivorian Movement for Human Rights.

Drive north to the former rebel stronghold of Bouake, and most security forces there are ex-insurgents whose uniform patches still identify them as members of the New Forces rebel movement.

The former rebels have vowed to stay neutral during the poll, but "there's always a risk of violence," Drissa said. "The rebels were never disarmed, they simply returned to barracks. They still have the capacity to fight."

Meanwhile, armed militias who filled the security vacuum in western Ivory Coast are also a serious threat. Some hold such sway, they were able to prevent all top three candidates from holding rallies in the western town of Guiglo in recent weeks, Drissa said. According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, banditry, violence, and rape are widespread in the region, and the rule of law there has disintegrated with no functioning trial courts or prisons.

Ivory Coast security forces, which have driven along Abidjan's lagoon-side highways this week in armored personnel carriers and trucks mounted with machine guns, are responsible for providing stability during Sunday's ballot. But Choi promised U.N. peacekeepers _ boosted by an extra 500 troops who arrived last month _ will step in if needed.

Prospects for peace were thrown into doubt in February, when Gbagbo unilaterally dissolved the government and the electoral commission amid allegations hundreds of thousands of foreigners had been included on voter rolls. The move led to three weeks of violent opposition demonstrations that left at least five people dead.

Gbagbo officially validated the final 5.7-million-person voter list in September, and only in the weeks since have new identity cards finally been handed out.

The voter list took three years to build from scratch, and nothing has been more contentious.

Ruling party supporters believe countless foreigners have falsified documents in a bid to vote illegally and skew the poll, while opposition leaders contend the process has merely helped cement legitimate rights to citizenship. Despite perceived imperfections, though, all parties have accepted the list and Choi has deemed it "credible."

After independence in 1960, Ivory Coast grew into the most progressive and developed nation in the region. Its affluence attracted millions of immigrant laborers from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, who came to work on plantations, especially cocoa farms which produce the raw material that goes into much of the world's chocolate.

The mass influx, though, also fueled a xenophobia that was swiftly exploited by powerful politicians.

While in power in the late 1990s, Bedie introduced the fiercely nationalistic concept of "Ivorian-ness" _ "Ivoirite" in French, meaning pure Ivorian heritage _ and used it to bar Ouattara from standing in a 1995 vote. The same logic excluded Ouattara from the last poll in 2000, which Gbagbo won after wild gangs of machete-wielding youth militants took to the streets to prevent junta leader Robert Guei from stealing it.

Those laws have now been amended to allow people with only one Ivorian parent _ instead of two _ to claim citizenship. The change removed the main challenge to Ouattara, one of whose parents, detractors say, was from Burkina Faso.

Underscoring the deep divisions which remain, Gbagbo's communications boss Augustin Guehoun repeated the allegation in an interview Thursday, claiming the opposition leader is not really Ivorian, a charge Ouattara fiercely denies.

Ouedraogo, the doctor who obtained his new identity card earlier this month, was born in Bouake and has a birth certificate dated from 1982 to prove it. He also closely guards his parents' Ivorian birth certificates and backs them up with copies.

Until this month, Ouedraogo's only claim to citizenship was a temporary national ID application that had to be renewed annually. At roadblocks, security forces demanding bribes used to tell him it was not valid, and some threatened to take it away.

After a decade-long wait, he finally picked up his new card this month with no hassle _ a slick orange rectangle of plastic with an outline of the Ivorian state in the background.

"It was a kind of deliverance to finally hold it in my hand," he said.

"Nobody can say any longer that because you're from the north, you're a foreigner," Ouedraogo said. "The crisis of identity is over."

But Ivory Coast's problems are not.

"People still say you're from the north, you're from the south. Tribalism and regionalism still exist," he said. "Maybe our children will move past this ... in 10 or 15 years."

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Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report.