On the eve of Ivory Coast's election, memories of civil war loom large

Will Brown
A bus burns during a protest, against Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara's plan to seek a third term in office, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 19 October 2020. - LEGNAN KOULA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A bus burns during a protest, against Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara's plan to seek a third term in office, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 19 October 2020. - LEGNAN KOULA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The bullet holes in the 60-year-old woman's floor are a constant reminder of how quickly her family and her country fell apart.

Nine years ago, Virginie was sitting in her living room with her family when unknown gunmen broke their door down in a suburb of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's bustling commercial capital. 

"My two boys, a professor and a pastry chef, went out with their hands in the air. [The men] were looked for Kalashnikovs in my ceiling. They found nothing. My children were killed, just like that," Virginie says. 

Ivory Coast has made extraordinary progress since an electoral feud spiralled into a bloody civil war in 2010 and 2011, needlessly killing some 3,000 people. 

International companies have flooded back into Francophone Africa's most vibrant market, and the economy has boomed at an average of 8 per cent a year. 

But this Saturday, the gains of the last decade will be on the line in a hotly contested presidential election. Political tensions are high and around 30 people have been killed in political clashes in recent weeks. The opposition claims the real number of deaths is more than double. 

International observers are waiting anxiously to see what will happen in the west Africa nation, which has never seen a peaceful transfer democratic of power and has instead suffered two civil wars in the last 20 years fought over the presidency. 

One of the key reasons from the high tensions is current president Alassane Ouattara's decision to run for a third term, which his opponents say rides roughshod over the constitution, which limits a president to two terms. 

A person holds a placard with a picture of Presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara of the ruling RHDP coalition party during his last campaign rally in Abidjan. The placard reads "The best. The best for our country". - Luc Gnago/ REUTERS
A person holds a placard with a picture of Presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara of the ruling RHDP coalition party during his last campaign rally in Abidjan. The placard reads "The best. The best for our country". - Luc Gnago/ REUTERS

The 78-year-old claims that constitutional amendments introduced in 2016 effectively reset his time in office but his critics say that his move could provoke severe intercommunal violence in a country where ethnicity often blurs into politics. 

After almost 40 contenders for the presidency including political heavyweights, such as former president  Laurent Gbagbo were barred from competing, Mr Ouattara is now the clear favourite to win.

His two main opponents, the former president Henri Konan Bédié, 86, and former prime minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan are probably not strong enough to beat him at the polls. 

Earlier this month, Mr Bédié and Mr N'Guessan announced they would boycott the election, criticising the electoral commission for being filled entirely with officials from the ruling party. Assailants then burnt down Mr N'Guessan's home in his home town of Bongouanou in the east of the country. 

Most Ivorians say there is little appetite to return to the conflicts which blighted their lives for years and hamstrung the economy.

Investors and analysts say they do not expect the vote to lead to an all-out war. But there are serious concerns that disputes about the election's legitimacy and opposition calls for civil disobedience could mean a long period of uncertainty, which would at least damage the economy and at worst spiral out of control. 
 

Even if the analysts say a full-blown conflict is unlikely, many victims of the last war The Daily Telegraph spoke to were still terrified of what could happen. 

Oku Traoré runs a mosque in a suburb of Abidjan which was attacked in 2011. Local residents say around 80 people were killed in the weeks that followed. “We are really worried. We hope it [violence] won’t get here,” says the 74-year-old.  

“We pray all the time. We do ceremonies. We have to pray; there is no security. With what we’ve seen in Dabou, groups fighting each other. It scares us,” Mr Traoré says referring to a port town in the south of the country which has seen horrific ethnic clashes in recent weeks. 

Many know how quickly the situation can change. Bus stations in Abidjan on Thursday were crowded with people trying to leave the city. About a dozen people The Daily Telegraph spoke to said they were leaving the city because of fears of electoral violence. 

In the background, the threat of the conflict raging across the Sahel, a band of arid scrubland underneath the Sahara desert, hangs like a sword over Ivory Coast. 

The country has close cultural and historical ties to Burkina Faso, which is currently battling the fastest-growing jihadist insurgency on earth, and there are fears that any significant political instability could grant the jihadists and armed groups inroads. 

"For now, nothing is going on," says Virginie. "But I'm worried a lot. I don't sleep. I don't know what will happen this year."