ABIDJAN — International mediators tried to intervene Sunday in Ivory Coast’s growing political crisis after both candidates in the disputed election said they were now president, raising fears the country could again be divided in two.
In the northern opposition stronghold of Bouake, several hundred people marched down a main boulevard Sunday afternoon, calling for incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to stand down. Villagers wielding machetes also created their own checkpoint in protest along one major road in the region.
“It’s important not to have violence, not to return to war — to find a peaceful solution,” former South African president Thabo Mbeki said Sunday after arriving in Abidjan to try and mediate at the behest of the African Union.
The international community has recognized opposition leader Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the presidential run-off held one week ago in Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer.
That, however, did not stop Gbagbo from defying calls to concede. On Saturday, he wrapped himself in the Ivorian flag as he was sworn in for another term at the presidential palace. Hours later, Ouattara told reporters that he too had been sworn into office.
The development effectively set up parallel governments and raised serious questions about who was actually in charge of this West African nation, which was split into a rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south by a 2002-2003 civil war. Despite Ouattara’s international support, Gbagbo holds many of the key elements of power, including the army and the state media.
The rivals’ support also falls along geographical lines, with Gbagbo controlling the south and Ouattara controlling the north. This has led to speculation that each president may govern over his half of the country, in a defacto re-division of the territory along lines established during the war. The country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal.
Revised results released Friday showing Gbagbo won re-election did not include a half million votes cast in Ouattara strongholds in the north. The constitutional council said that was because there was evidence pro-Gbagbo voters had been intimidated. The move infuriated residents in areas where votes were thrown out, some of whom blocked a major road Sunday with tree trunks and rocks in protest.
“We are no longer considered Ivorian,” said 48-year-old Ali Coulibaly, as other people lay in the road nearby to block cars from passing near the northern village of Djebonoua.
National identity remains at the heart of the split between the loyalist-held south and the north: Northerners have long complained they are treated as foreigners in their own country by southerners.
The question of who would even be allowed to vote in this long-awaited election took years to settle as officials tried to differentiate between Ivorians with roots in neighbouring countries and foreigners. Ouattara, born in the north, had himself been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not Ivorian, and that he was of Burkinabe origin.
“The risk of violence between supporters of the two parties, as well as repression by Ivorian security forces against real or perceived supporters of Ouattara, is very high,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
There have been reports of fatalities since the election crisis intensified Thursday, although they could not immediately be independently confirmed.
An official at the mayor’s office said that two people were killed when police began firing at a slaughterhouse in the Porte Bouet district of Abidjan. Moussa Soumahoro said he saw police removing the bodies Saturday morning.
Two others were shot dead outside their home in Issia after dark, said Adama Toungara, the mayor of the Abobo district of Abidjan, identifying the victims as his cousin and uncle. Toungara, who is a member of Ouattara’s party, said his cousin was called outside first and shot, and that his uncle was shot afterward when he came looking for his son.
The country was placed on lockdown immediately after the commission announced Ouattara’s win on Thursday, with a decree read on state TV saying the nation’s air and land borders had been closed. However, borders remained open in the country’s north, and residents there also were not observing the nationwide curfew.
Gbagbo says he is the rightful winner of the run-off vote, citing the Ivorian constitution that gives ultimate authority on the issue to the country’s constitutional council, which declared him the winner.
However, Ouattara points to the 2007 peace deal, which states that the United Nations must certify the election results. The UN maintains the vote was credible, and that Ouattara won the presidential election.
Gbagbo’s five-year mandate expired in 2005 and the country’s first election in a decade was delayed multiple times. He claimed first that the country was too volatile and that security could not be assured. He later cited technicalities like the composition of the voter roll.
The election went ahead in October but then headed to a run-off vote last Sunday. The country’s election commission announced Thursday that Ouattara had won. However, new results released Friday on national television by a Gbagbo loyalist who heads the constitutional council said that the incumbent president had in fact been re-elected.