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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 63-72

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Francophone Africa in Flux

Ethnicity and Political Crisis in Côte d'Ivoire

Jeanne Maddox Toungara

Côte d'Ivoire, long one of Africa's most stable and prosperous countries, experienced the first military coup d'étatin its history on 24 December 1999. The political instability that triggered the coup and the fraudulent elections that followed were foreseeable consequences of the poor leadership of the ousted president, Henri Konan Bédié. Although the junta leader General Robert Gueï and his cabinet successfully organized a referendum on 23 July 2000 leading to approval of a new constitution and the establishment of the Second Republic, they failed in preparing free and fair presidential elections. Through exclusionary tactics and juridical manipulation, Gueï effectively disqualified the most popular candidates--Alassane Dramane Ouattara of the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) and Emile Constant Bombet of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI)--making way for his own run for the presidency. The list of candidates included Laurent Gbagbo of the Front Populaire Ivoirien(FPI), who had become a close collaborator with General Gueï, and three other candidates of little importance.

The presidential balloting of 22 October 2000 was a sham. The PDCI and the RDR boycotted the elections. Before the results were tabulated, Gueï suspended the electoral commission and claimed victory. Gbagbo, in response, rapidly proclaimed himself president of the republic and called his party militants into the street to show support for his electoral coup; RDR and PDCI supporters joined the FPI militants in the streets, not to support Gbagbo but to defend their right to free and fair elections. They chased Gueï into exile on October 25. Despite the exclusion of other [End Page 63] candidates and the low voter turnout of 37 percent (compared to 54 percent for the referendum), Gbagbo held his ground. The electoral commission later confirmed his victory with 59.4 percent of votes cast to Gueï's 32.3 percent. Gbagbo, upon his installation, launched another round of political repression by security forces. The legislative elections of December 10 repeated the debacle of the presidential balloting. Only the municipal elections of 25 March 2001 have given Ivoirians and international observers some hope that democracy may be salvageable in Côte d'Ivoire.

Since Côte d'Ivoire's transition to multiparty democracy in 1990, the electoral process has opened a Pandora's box of rampant fear and greed among powerful Ivoirian politicos. This West African nation of nearly 16 million inhabitants, formerly a leading producer of coffee and cocoa, is in decline and spiraling toward economic ruin. Abidjan, the "Pearl of the Lagune" and the commercial capital of Côte d'Ivoire, no longer beckons seductively to the international business and finance community, as it had during 30 years of strong-armed leadership by Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Many PDCI barons who served under the one-party regime that he founded have organized opposition parties--a process that began a few years before his death in 1993. They are competing for ethnic loyalties, power, and authority, while leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. Houphouët's carefully crafted ethnic balancing act has been dismantled, leaving primordial ethnic linkages up for grabs and disturbing fragile alliances among the urban middle class, as each group battles to protect the positions and advantages it gained during the First Republic. The latest round of elections has revealed profound weaknesses in the capacity of the leadership to prevent violence and guarantee the rights of citizens while these disparate groups defend their turf. Their actions have analysts wondering whether Côte d'Ivoire can avoid the fate of its less fortunate neighbors to the west, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Only the determination of the international financial community to restrict donor funds when conditions allowing wanton violations of human rights, killings, and insecurity went unchecked seems to have forced the leadership to reconsider its role and its responsibilities to the state.

The Ethnic Factor

To understand the roots of...