That morning brought a smile to my face: It was the opening of the presidential campaign in Côte d’Ivoire. This year’s election had filled my country with the hope of reunification after eight years of division between the northern and southern parts of the country.
There was even a female candidate on the ballot, Jacqueline Oble. She caught my attention, bringing forth an interest in politics that I had not known existed in me. Before this election, I would skim the headlines for the top news stories. But this year was different.
We thought this election would bring things back to normal after a failed coup attempt led to violence that divided our country in 2002: People would be able to go back to their villages, repossess their houses, return to work. We believed the elections would bring us a regular government and a working economy. The hope I felt for this female candidate running for president in October was soon replaced by disillusionment. The entire election was fraught with tension from the outset. We waited, hoping that calm would at last settle over my country as the election results were announced.
The time was already 11:42pm on December 1, 2010—the day the results were supposed to be in—and there had still been no announcement. When Youssouf Bakayoko, the president of the Independent Electoral Commission, went on the air without announcing the winner, I knew in my heart that a definitive answer would not emerge in the next eight minutes. I felt fear taking over my body, but I told myself to be positive. My friends and I sat in front of the TV until 2am but still no results were given. Rumors began to emerge that the results were tainted by fraud, that the Independent Electoral Commission could not explain certain results, and that challenger Ouattara was the winner.
I switched my phone off to avoid a heart attack. The whole country was quiet for three days. Abidjan was so empty that even in Adjame-Liberté—where the hum of traffic is usually constant—there were barely five cars. The atmosphere was scary. Later the rumors were confirmed: The president of the Independent Electoral Commission had declared Ouattara the winner, but the Constitutional Council invalidated results from contested regions—leading both Ouattara and incumbent Gbagbo to claim the presidency.
Today, as the UN has reported, after two rounds of the election, “Gbagbo still controls government buildings, state television and the security forces, while Ouattara remains trapped in the lagoon-side of the Golf Hotel, under guard of UN troops. He has set up a rival government with international (UN, France, African Union and ECOWAS) backing, but no power.” In an attempt to weaken Gbagbo’s control, the United States and many Western countries imposed sanctions in January that remain in place today.
Trash is burning in front of stores. Some schools and businesses have closed. Men are arming themselves. Women and children are fearful to leave their homes. My younger brother who lives alone in Abidjan now sleeps at a friend's house for safety. The UN has reported that nearly 450,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The violence is escalating. Hundreds have been murdered since the election results were announced, and women and men throughout the country are crying out.
Many anticipate the darkness of civil war taking hold of our country once again. The rebels are in place to dislodge Gbagbo. The UN has sent troops and the Economic Community of West African States is also rumored to be sending forces. I watch soldiers descend on my country, and I worry that we are forgetting our history. When the Armed Forces and their former leader, General Robert Guei, took power in 1999 we all congratulated them, legitimating the use of violence to claim power in our country. People died, but we thought it was the best option. Again, in 2000, my countrymen and women lost their lives in the name of democracy.
I have always known Côte d’Ivoire as a country of peace, and I am very disturbed by all this killing and bloodshed. I could not understand the spell we were living under in 2002 when the failed coup led us into years of conflict. For the past eight years we have lost ourselves in a world of fighting, killing, rapes, mass graves, and child soldiers. Today we cannot trace the real figures of human lives lost.
I am left trying to sort out why this is happening all over again. The math doesn’t make sense. The Independent Electoral Commission declared 2,107,055 votes for Gbagbo and 2,483,164 votes for Ouattara when only 3,990,000 people voted. Only Gbagbo complained about the results, but why was there no thought to a new round of elections? Rather than award the presidency to men who are willing to kill their own people for power, a moderate solution would be to call for new elections, or install a transitory government, military or civilian, without these two men.
The descent into violence could have been prevented. Independent Electoral Commission president Bakayoko made the greatest mistake he could make by proclaiming Ouattara’s victory without the consensus of the other members. Today, Bakayoko is safe in France with his whole family while we are suffering. The Constitutional Council can also be blamed for not validating Bakayoko’s announcement of Ouattara as the winner. Because a careless attitude was applied to these sensitive proceedings, our country is in chaos.
Gbagbo is not my relative; neither is Ouattara, and I am not ready to fight for either of them. Some of my fellow countrymen and women are. They are discouraged, ashamed, angry, passionate, fed-up, and tired. According to many of my fellow Ivorians, Ouattara is the president and Gbagbo has overstayed his welcome. In 10 years all he succeeded in accomplishing is poverty, bloodshed, and embezzlement. While people are dying he fights only for his presidential seat.
Another group of Ivorians want Ouattara to admit that he trafficked ballots with the help of rebels in the north and leave his quest for the presidency. I spoke with people who would rather die than have Ouattara run the country. My neighbors say that the international community is only backing Ouattara because it is in their interest, that the rebels are eating with Outtara, threatening us, and the whole world is applauding.
Today I cannot talk with my neighbors. I don’t know what is in a person’s heart. Even questioning people to write this story sparked accusations. A friend of mine called me pro-Gbagbo. I have also been accused of supporting Ouattara. Husbands and wives are fighting over this. Brothers cannot discuss our fragmented politics with each other; some have stopped attending church. Others are forbidden to enter mosques—all in the name of politics.
I have stopped watching TV—except for cartoons. The local state-owned channel runs continuous stories on Gbagbo and how he has won. The foreign news channels keep me worrying all night with reports on rebel leader and Ouattara’s Prime Minister Soro Guillaume’s ultimatums. We are tired of all this. They should stop using us for their game, stop counting dead people as trophies while the people suffer. This election has done nothing but solidify the divide between the north and the south.
I blame the UN, France, the international community, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, and all the political party leaders in Côte d’Ivoire who knew that having this election with armed rebels occupying the north would end like this. But they still urged us to do so. I had hoped the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union could help in pacifist ways after their delegation missions in late December and early January, but they have failed me with their willingness to engage in violence to instate their winner. The African Union and West African community are more concerned about signatures on bank accounts and seat shares than our lives.
I question the motives of the international community, and I worry that we will end up like Iraq: a country cut into pieces that will take decades to rebuild. Other African countries have contested leaders or less than perfect election results, but none of them have received this level of interference from the international community—and I doubt the real motivation is democracy.
By sending troops to my country, the whole world has signed our death sentence. The sanctions imposed to weaken Gbagbo are hurting the people of Côte d’Ivoire. Farmers cannot sell their cocoa and coffee because the international community has decided it. But these producers are not politicians. Medical supply shipments to Cote d'Ivoire have been blocked and people are dying. Those who fall sick and need drugs are not politicians. The Economic Community of West African States has blocked our financial transactions. How should we eat? How should we take care of our children?
Those of us who are suffering are not politicians. No country in the world would agree to have an embargo like this imposed on its people. And neither do we. If the international community wants Gbagbo out, they know where to find him.
Rwanda, Liberia, and other African countries are using discussion to recover from atrocities and painful destruction. Why don’t we skip the violence? Why don’t we sit down, negotiate and discuss, straight from the beginning, and save our lives? We are not asking for money or for food to fall from the sky. We want our lives spared. We want to go to school, get medical care, do our business, trade, and live without fear. We want to invest and see our children laugh and dance and grow with love.
It is not easy to find solutions to this mess, but I believe that if women organize and call for the departure of these two men, we can come to a resolution sooner. Women have been expressing their views on TVs, radio, through meetings and protest marches from the beginning. In Africa when women are tired they get up, and when they are dying they can curse you. In my country, a curse from a woman is the worst thing a politician can face. These men are not allowing each other to rule the country, but the women of Côte d’Ivoire are getting up and we are speaking for ourselves.