Ivory Coast battles over foreign votes

Mark Huband in Abidjan looks at the country’s first multi-party presidential poll

The Guardian, 27 October 1990

THE Beninois was frightened when he got to work. He said he had been threatened on the bus by activists from the ruling party, who told him he would suffer if he did not vote for the president’s re-election.

“They walked along the bus identifying all the foreigners. They told us that the Popular Front would, throw us out so we had better vote for Houphouët. Of course I said I would. And I will.”

The Ivory Coast’s week-long presidential election campaign, which will end tomorrow with the first multi-party contest in the country’s history, has turned into a battle to win the votes of the estimated four million non-Ivorian Africans living in the country.

The government of President Felix Houphou


ët-Boigny announced last week that all African foreigners’ would be allowed to, vote. The ruling Democratic Party (PDCI) then began a campaign aimed at the foreigners – most whom come from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria – based on the claim that the opposition Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) intended to favour Ivorians in employment legislation and to create resentment of foreigners.

The PDCI hopes this will ensure a victory for the 85-year old President, who has ruled the country since its independence from France in 1960, but who is aware of his uncertain support among native Ivorians.

While the FPI has denied that will discriminate against foreigners if it wins, the government’s tactic has undermined the opposition’s credibility. Foreigners, most of whom are, taxi drivers, street-sellers, or in service industries in the economic capital, Abidjan, have been frightened off voting for an opposition party intent on provoking the establishment.

One man selling soft drinks back from a six foot plastic model of an Orangina bottle, said: ‘I will vote for what I know. Houphouët welcome us. I come from Burkina Faso, where people are poor. Houphouët let us in. We should be grateful.’

He was surrounded by jeunes militants from the ruling PDCI. They all bought drinks from the Orangina bottle. They were noisy and excited, and yelled the President’s name.

A watching Lebanese woman: “I’m for the PDCL I feel safe with them.”

I had seen the same woman, months before, barring her windows when street demonstrations in Abidjan demanding multi-party democracy causing many Lebanese to feel threatened. Resentment built up against them because of their control over large sections of the economy, particularly property and sales of the country’s main export, cocoa – of which the Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer.

At a press conference in April, given against a background of economic slump and growing political protest, President Houphouët-Boigny singled out the Lebanese to criticise for being corrupt and bringing the country to its knees by taking their fortunes abroad. Even this slur does not appear to have made them want to vote for the opposition.

The election campaign has allowed both presidential candidates 20 minutes of television time every evening. On, Monday, the government declared that the FPI’s broadcast that evening contained “lies” , so it was being replaced with music videos featuring Marie Osmond.

At the country’s last presidential election in 1985, Mr Houphouët-Boigny became the first leader in Africa to declare that he had won 100 per cent of the vote. According to official figures there was a 99.97 per cent turnout; 770 people in the countryside did not vote because they were “ill”,it was announced at the time.

At that time the FPI leader, Laurent Gbagbo, was in exile in Paris, from where he returned in 1988. While Mr Gbagbo certainly has widespread support, the combination of genuine feeling that Mr Houphouët-Boigny should hold on for stability’s sake, and the scare tactics and harassment by PDCI supporters, will probably ensure victory for the incumbent President.

This realisation, which is generally acknowledged by the less militant activists on both sides, has led to mounting tension throughout the country. So far, the PDCI has avoided confronting social issues in its campaign. Its televised election broadcasts have tended to use film of the President dating back several years, showing him as an active politician. But he has not been seen in public since the election campaign opened. No reason has been given for his absence from the election trail.

For Mr Gbagbo, the probability of defeat, despite his claim that up to 70 per cent of the electorate would vote for him in a fair election, is almost of secondary importance. People just want to see what an opposition leader looks like. ‘They just want to touch me, to see me. It’s the birth of democracy which is really the issue,” Mr Gbagbo said, after a rally in the north-west town of Bondoukou.

Many who attend the opposition rallies have little knowledge of the party’s policies. They just want a change from what they are used to. Jean Morokro, the secretary-general of the FPI, said: “It’s change which the people are most interested in. Afterwards they will be more concerned about the intricacies of policy.’

As the campaign has progressed, the country has also become increasingly divided along tribal lines. Villagers in Mr Houphouët-Boigny’s Baule tribal heartland declared themselves firmly behind the incumbent president. This is despite a severe drop in peasant incomes as a result of a government decision last September to cut the guaranteed price paid to farmers for their produce.

Both the PDCI and the FPI represent a tribal mix, but the ethnic base of the two presidential candidates, Mr Gbagbo’s Bete tribe and Mr Houphouët-Boigny’s Baule tribe, has ensured that tribal allegiance is playing a role in the open battle for leadership of the country.



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