Last week Côte d’Ivoire declared a “slight change” of the Nov. 29 election date. It is the latest in a long series of delays and at a glance really just seems to be more of the same in the frustratingly cumbersome progress of democratization across the continent. The announcement came from CI’s independent electoral commission president, Robert Mambe who said that the delay was a result of the length of time taken to compile the provisional voter list.
So what’s the deal in Cote d’Ivoire? Following the introduction of multiparty elections in the early 90s and then the death of its first president in soon after the country struggled with squabbling between the political parties. When the economic situation worsened in the late 90s political tensions rose and the blame game turned along divisive ethnic lines. This led to a 1999 coup and eventually outright civil war in 2002 which has left the country divided between the north and south. Eventually an integrated transitional government was agreed upon.
Original plans to hold elections in October 2005 failed after local parties and political leaders were unable to cooperate with rebels in the north, claiming that the government would rig any elections. Thanks to a U.N. backed peace agreement the current president remained in power for another year in order to facilitate elections. In November 2006 there were still no elections or concrete plans for them and the U.N. voted to extend the transitional government until Oct 31, 2007, the new date for elections. After this date comes and goes President Gbagbo announces in April 2008 that elections will be held on Nov 30 2008. One month before that the election is postponed to Dec. 31st after failures to progress in voter registration and military disarmament. Elections are reset to Nov 29.
Truthfully, the latest delay can hardly be seen as surprising. Like so many other conflicts in Africa, the rebels once unified have splintered as the crisis has dragged on. Disarmament however has not been the most pressing problem. The most politically sensitive issue remains that of nationality and who is eligible to vote. The divisive debate harkens back to the days of Houphouet’s successor Henri Konan Bédié’s political feud with northern rival Alassan Outarra whom he tried do disqualify from presidential eligibility by questioning his nationality. The U.N. has called for accelerating the remaining technical steps, such as the printing and distribution of national identity and voter cards. However official papers dispersion has been poor even before the first coup in 1999.
The on-going crisis in Cote d’Ivoire is only one of the latest to strike the region of West Africa, which has accounted for 60% of Africa’s military interventions since the 1970s. The case of Côte d’Ivoire is especially troubling, as it had once been hailed as a model of both political stability and economic success. Successful polls would, according to a Reuters report earlier this year, “lure investors back to a nation that was the economic and political powerhouse of West Africa but has seen poverty rates rise to almost 50 percent from 38 percent since 2002, according to government figures.” However, so far, leaders on both sides of the conflict seem more interested in maintaining their own success (however limited) than ensuring the ability for citizens to take back control of their nation.