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On March 29, 2011, at least 800 villagers were massacred in Duékoué, a town in western Côte d’Ivoire. Militias loyal to Alassane Ouattara, a candidate in the recently held and hotly disputed presidential election, went house to house, AK-47s in hand, rounding up the men and systematically executing them. Witnesses recount the soldiers’ chants of “You voted Gbagbo! We are going to kill you all!” as they fired their rounds.
In other towns, militias loyal to (and allegedly under the control of) the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo, used similar tactics, leaving behind a path of “murder, rape, other inhumane acts, and persecution.” Before the fighting ended, 3,000 people had died and roughly a million others were displaced.
That conflict was sparked by Côte d’Ivoire’s last election. On Sunday, the country votes to elect a new president. Will this time be different?
Five years ago, after Ivoirians cast their ballots, two different electoral bodies—the independent election commission and the Constitutional Council—announced two different winners. The former declared Ouattara, a northern Muslim candidate, the winner. The latter said that the incumbent, Gbagbo, a southern Christian, had been reelected. Regardless, all credible indications suggested that Ouattara had received more votes.
In the weeks and months after the conflicting pronouncements, militias on both sides committed war crimes as they scrambled to gain the upper hand. Civilians were caught in the crossfire. But ultimately, a coalition of French and United Nations forces intervened and put Ouattara, the internationally recognized victor, in power. Gbagbo was arrested and later transferred to The Hague to await trial for crimes against humanity. (His trial is scheduled to begin on November 10.)
This conclusion to the civil war marked a return to peace and a somewhat precarious prosperity. Côte d’Ivoire’s economy is soaring, with a growth rate of 8.3 percent last year and similarly strong figures expected this year. Construction cranes dot the Abidjan skyline. The African Development Bank, relocated to Tunis during the country’s most recent civil war, has returned. Heineken is opening a new brewery in Côte d’Ivoire. Cocoa production, which represents the backbone of the economy, is being bolstered by strong prices, as world demand for chocolate rises. The country has also managed to escape the Ebola crisis and the scourge of Islamist extremism in the region.
Even if Ouattara does cruise to a second term, Côte d’Ivoire is not out of the woods.These promising benchmarks are the main reason why it is widely believed that Ouattara will be reelected on Sunday. His outlook is even rosier given that the opposition has failed to unite behind a challenger, leaving Ouattara to face a splintered array of foes. The main rival is Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who inherited Gbagbo’s position as leader of the Front Populaire Ivoirien, while Gbagbo awaits trial thousands of miles away. However, even the FPI itself is divided; some hard-liners advocate an electoral boycott as long as their figurehead is in jail, and others contend that they must march on and aggressively contest an election they are almost sure to lose.
Even if Ouattara does cruise to a second term, Côte d’Ivoire is not out of the woods. In September, clashes erupted across the country when the certified list of candidates was released. It did not include Gbagbo’s name, and in his hometown of Gagnoa, protesters erected barricades and clashed with the police. In the infamous political tinderbox of Yopougon, a neighborhood in Abidjan, protesters set fire to one bus and threw stones at another. One person was killed in the clash, and many others were wounded.
The anger among Gbagbo’s supporters has two root causes, both linked to a sense of perceived favoritism and injustice.
For one, Gbagbo loyalists argue that the international community has rallied around Ouattara at the expense of genuine electoral competition. Ouattara, they say, rubbed elbows with the Western political elite during his time at the highest echelons of the International Monetary Fund and is now reaping the benefits of his friendships to score an easy victory. To support this claim, FPI hard-liners point to the fact that Ouattara’s ascent to power was possible only when France intervened on his behalf in 2011. They also denounce the fact that the European Union has decided not to monitor elections, an admittedly strange decision given the high stakes of this first post-conflict vote. (The EU has bizarrely justified this decision not in terms of cost but by suggesting that they were confident in the transparent nature of the vote—an absurd claim given Côte d’Ivoire’s political history and how explosive a botched election could prove.)
Further, FPI hard-liners claim that Ouattara’s economic reforms and the subsequent growth allowed him sufficient international political support to get away with victors’ justice. Gbagbo’s militias were jailed, tried, and sentenced for the atrocities they committed in the 2010–11 civil war; fewer Ouattara loyalists were prosecuted. In particular, it took more than two years for Ouattara’s administration to arrest Amadé Ouérémi, who is widely acknowledged to have been the ringleader of the Duékoué massacre in March 2011. And, as FPI loyalists are quick to point out, that arrest only came after intense pressure from international NGOs, notably Human Rights Watch. Growth and stability, rather than impartiality and reconciliation, have been the hallmarks of the Ouattara administration.
Even if Ouattara wins a landslide first-round victory on Sunday, those two threads of anger will not disappear. At a minimum, low-level violence is to be expected no matter the result, facilitated by failed attempts at post-conflict disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, which left “large amounts of unregulated arms and ammunition available in the country,” according to a June 2015 assessment from the UN Security Council. If the turnout is exceptionally low, for example because a political candidate calls for a last-minute boycott, or if any major opposition figure alleges electoral fraud, widely available weapons could enable broader violence. Most Ivoirians seem to have a strong sense of conflict fatigue and are overwhelmingly united in their desire to avoid a third civil war, but hard-liners may view things differently.
The international community has conflict fatigue too. The number one item on the agenda of diplomats in Côte d’Ivoire is peace and stability, and rightfully so. However, it would be a mistake if the European Union decision to not monitor the election portends a wider tactic of pragmatic diplomacy that sweeps problems under the rug in the name of stability. Inevitably, the election will be flawed in some ways. If the flaws are comparatively minor, as is expected, those failings should be acknowledged as unfortunate weeds that must be uprooted before future contests. Otherwise, the eagerness to avoid conflict now may sow the seeds of future violence. Ivoirians have fought two civil wars over their last two elections; any perception of unfairness could be destabilizing, even if a third civil war remains unlikely.
These challenges do not negate the fact that Côte d’Ivoire’s dark past will likely be replaced by a much brighter future if this election proceeds peacefully. Anything other than a smooth Ouattara victory would be surprising. But the decision ultimately comes down to the Ivoirians who show up to the polls on Sunday.
The decision whether to cast a ballot or to accept the electoral verdict—like all decisions in post-conflict elections—cannot be completely disentangled from the deep scars of the violence that preceded voting. Ouattara will smile for the cameras while casting his ballot. If he wins, as is expected, he will surely speak of reconciliation and consensus. But in Duékoué, five years after militias gunned down hundreds of villagers, accusing them of voting the “wrong” way, many would-be voters will stay home.