By Sam Bradpiece and Danielle Paquette,
Leo Correa AP
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — This year’s presidential election was supposed to be a peaceful transfer of power, a democratic success after a history of mutiny and civil war.
But dozens have died in street clashes ahead of Ivory Coast’s vote Saturday, and President Alassane Ouattara’s top rivals are urging their supporters to boycott the polls, plunging the West African nation into turmoil.
“For us, there will be no election,” said Pascal Affi N’Guessan, a former prime minister and spokesman for the opposition. “An election must be fair. This is not the case.”
Ouattara, 78, is seeking a hotly contested third term, asserting he was forced into the race after his chosen successor, the prime minister, died in July of a heart attack.
Analysts say the contest poses the biggest threat to Ivory Coast’s stability since a disputed election in 2010 burst into a civil war that claimed roughly 3,000 lives.
Election officials said there were reports of disruptions keeping voters from polling sites in at least seven of the country’s 31 provinces. In the eastern town of Daoukro, roadblocks were set up by the opposition to block voters, police said.
Tensions are rising at a delicate moment for the region, which is struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic’s economic blows as unrest deepens in several countries.
Violence gripped neighboring Guinea this month as President Alpha Condé sought and secured an equally controversially third term — and protests against police brutality continue to rock Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and biggest economy.
Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, meanwhile, face Islamist insurgencies that have grown deadlier this year while spreading closer to Ivory Coast.
Political chaos could play right into the militants’ hands, said Arthur Banga, an international relations professor in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan. The extremist groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are known to exploit division.
“The country will become more vulnerable to this kind of threat,” he said.
The Ivorian leader, who took power in 2010, has argued a constitutional change reset his legal number of runs. That claim sparked waves of protests, which quickly turned into violence between communities across the country. The government estimates that 30 people have died in clashes since August. (The opposition estimates a death toll of 68 since September.)
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara waves to supporters after speaking at a rally in the outskirts of Abidjan on Wednesday.
“We sleep like crocodiles with one eye open,” said Augustin Amari Esmel, a 48-year-old rubber buyer in the southern village of Agnéby. “Everyone is scared.”
Yves Zogbo Junior, spokesman for the Security Ministry, said the recent clashes have a simple explanation: “One community puts up roadblocks, another tries to take them down.”
The reality is more complex. Each of the main political parties draws support from different ethnic groups, and those groups have come to blows. The violence is “proof of the manipulation of different communities by the political class,” said Moquet César Flan, director of Abidjan’s Center of Political Research, a nongovernmental group.
Ouattara had previously promised to step aside and make way for a “new generation” of leaders, drawing praise from France and other global allies.
Everything changed when his party’s next candidate, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died suddenly. No one but Ouattara could do the job, his office said.
His opponents begged to differ.
Affi N’Guessan and former president Henri Konan Bedie — who was overthrown in a 1999 coup — accused the president of bending the rules to maintain power. Ouattara’s candidacy, they say, violates the nation’s two-term limit.
Bedie instructed followers to respond with “civil disobedience” rather than voting. (Both have stopped short of withdrawing their names from the ballot.)
“We have succeeded in discrediting the electoral process and in giving ourselves the means not to recognize Mr. Ouattara as President of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire after October 31,” Affi N’Guessan told French newspaper Le Monde.
Banana sellers in the central Ivory Coast village of Daoukro post a sign protesting Ouattara’s bid for a third term.
The last political standoff in Ivory Coast led to civil war when former president Laurent Gbagbo lost to Ouattara and refused to step down. The bloodshed ended after French troops and U.N. peacekeepers intervened.
“This time, I don’t want that to happen again,” said Virginie Gbetri, 60, whose living room floor in Abidjan is still pockmarked from bullets.
Two of her nephews died in the violence.
“I don’t want someone to come and kill me with my children at home,” she said.
On Thursday, Gbagbo — who lives in exile in Belgium — broke years of silence in a television interview, warning Ivorians that a lack of dialogue would ensure “catastrophe.”
While tensions have been high, the chance of conflict like the one 10 years ago is slim. Back then, two opposing armies had been locked in a semi-permanent standoff since the outbreak of civil war in 2002.
This time, “the context is completely different,” Flan said. “The opening of a front between two opposing armies with organized chains of command is not envisageable. Mediation efforts and all kinds of pressure will be put on the different sides, allowing us to avoid a repeat of the scenario of 2010-11.”
With the absence of competition, analysts say Ouattara is likely to win in a landslide. He dominated the first round of the last election in 2015 with more than 80 percent of the vote.
And he announced last month that Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, would raise the minimum price paid to farmers by more than a fifth — a move that will likely net him wider support.
Once polls close Saturday, counting votes is expected to take up to five days. The government plans to deploy 28,000 law enforcement officers — as well as 7,000 soldiers — to address the looming turbulence.
“Who are you going to vote for?” asked Ouattara at his final campaign rally on Thursday.
Thousands of supporters in the crowd shouted his initials. Then the president left the event, and a scuffle broke out. Gunfire crackled.