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IVORY COAST: Two Presidents, One Office

Contested election leaves West African nation in turmoil

Political tensions continue to mount in the violence-ridden country of Ivory Coast after the November 2010 presidential elections, which left incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and president-Elect Alassane Ouattara in dispute over who is the rightful leader of the West African country.

Official election results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission placed Ouattara as the winner with 54.1 percent of the votes to Gbagbo’s 45.9 percent, but these results were later negated by the Constitutional Council after accusations of fraud. Much of the international community including the United Nations, United States and the European Union, along with leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), recognize and defend Ouattara’s victory. Despite this external insistence, Gbagbo refuses to relinquish his power, asserting “I am charged with defending our sovereignty and I will not negotiate on that.”

The presidential election disagreement stems from the division of the country into the government-commanded south and the rebel-controlled north, where the Constitutional Council affirms a botched election with rigged ballots, according to BBC News. Ouattara affirms, however, that he is the rightfully elected president of the Republic of Ivory Coast, and that the Constitutional Council has abused its authority.

Nearly two months into the political ordeal, controversy thickens and the prospect of successful negotiations to have Gbagbo willingly step down without military interference continuously diminish. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga were sent as representatives of the African Union along with the presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde in failed efforts to prompt a resignation. Instead, Gbagbo demanded a recount of votes, but as official election documents have been kept by his administration, a recount is considered unlikely as results could easily be manipulated.

“Gbagbo refuses to relinquish his power, asserting “I am charged with defending our sovereignty and I will not negotiate on that.”

On December 4, Gbagbo defied the threat of military removal and held a ceremony to swear himself in as president. Ouattara simultaneously did the same through a handwritten oath sent to the Constitutional Council and both men promptly appointed their prime ministers. ECOWAS has stated that if Gbagbo fails to recognize Ouattara as the officially elected President by January 17, defense chiefs will gather to enact a strategy to remove him through “legitimate force.”

Holding office since 2000, Gbagbo presided over a turbulent era of civil war that ended in 2007, and many believed that after being postponed six times, the elections would usher in newfound stability for Ivory Coast’s 20 million inhabitants. Instead, violence has presided over the streets of Abidjan – the country’s administrative capital – and throughout the country since the first round of voting on October 31. Protests and rioting have left more than 200 dead and nearly 2,000 injured or missing, according to British newspaper The Guardian. The UN is considering adding to its 9,000 peacekeepers already in the area of Abidjan, dismissing Gbagbo’s command to retire all UN soldiers. Guillaume Soro, Ouattara’s designated prime minister, describes the situation as “murderous insanity” and the threat of a rekindled civil war looms over the chaos.

Protests and rioting have left more than 200 dead and nearly 2,000 injured or missing

As the hostility augments, the neighboring country of Liberia has received waves of refugees that number nearly 15,000 and anticipates as many as 50,000 to 100,000 in the coming weeks, reports Voice of America news. Repercussions of Gbagbo’s refusal to step down are also felt internationally, as Switzerland has halted deportations to Ivory Coast and the World Bank has frozen $800 million of the country’s funds. Economic troubles continue to escalate with businesses closing and disruption in the business for cocoa, one of the country’s major exports and source of revenue.

The atmosphere of the elections has morphed from originally thrilling at the prospect of stability to one brimming with animosity, and Ivory Coast’s grapple for power ultimately seems poised to define the fate of its democracy.

By Michelle Carrera

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