The Ivory Coast’s football team made the headlines for its victory at the African Cup of Nations, but the country still faces problems. With elections to be held within months a display of unity as the one shown on the pitch would be badly needed.
Probably when Boubacar Barry, the Ivory Coast’s goalkeeper, scored the last penalty in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final he probably was not aware of it, but what he and the other players just did bore many similarities to what their homeland would like to achieve.
By beating Ghana 9-8 on penalties after a painfully long shoot out, the Ivory Coast managed to win AFCON for the first time in 23 years, giving a display of determination and unity.
The same, many think, should happen in the whole country later this year, when citizens will choose their president. It will be the first vote of this kind since 2010, when Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner, had to wait for months – amid a lengthy urban guerrilla in the main city, Abidjan – before he could finally be sworn in as head of state, in mid-2011. Nevertheless, the arrest of his main opponent, the then incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, now under trial by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, divided the country. Gbagbo never admitted defeat, and his party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), has boycotted local elections since then. Moreover, many of his main supporters have been or still are on the run, fearing to be incriminated in turn.
Challenges to unity
In this context, Ouattara understood well the potential political value of the AFCON victory, which had been celebrated by all Ivorians, irrespective of political opinion, ethnics or religion. Les Elephants, as the national football team has been nicknamed, could well become a symbol for a reunited nation, after a ten year long crisis (2002-2011), which erupted in full scale war twice, and the victory could also boost the image of the government in the wake of the elections. “You gave Ivorians a great lesson of solidarity and courage”, the president told the players during the celebrations. “You show the way to every Ivorian, for it’s by showing solidarity that we can move forward”, he added.
The reality he has to face, however, is harsher than the picture he tried to depict. Within both the majority party and the opposition (let alone the parliament and the whole country) deep tensions persist. Ouattara’s candidacy could be challenged – at least in the first round of the elections – by some personality from the PDCI, the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, now an ally of the president’s RDR (Rally of the Republicans). On the other hand, even if in detention and under trial, Gbagbo still hopes to secure the presidential nomination for the FPI, something the party leader, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, is not willing to concede. In general, personal, local and even ‘tribal’ loyalty will have more or less the same influence on the vote it had in 2010.
In five years of nominal peace, few advances were seen also on some thorny legacies of the war years. One of these is the handling of the trials for the crimes committed during the conflict, which has been quite poor, according to the International Federation for Human Rights and some of its local associates. “The progress made by the Ivorian justice in the fight against impunity over the last year remains largely insufficient, and the only trial of the post-electoral crisis currently scheduled will not deal with human rights violations and appears to be very political in nature,” said lawyer Yacouba Doumbia in December last year, for instance, voicing a concern that has been frequently raised by Gbagbo’s supporters. In addition to this, national reconciliation is made harder by the fact that violence has not been completely eradicated: as a recent Human Rights Watch report noted “heavily-armed criminals are subjecting residents of northern Cote d’Ivoire to a relentless pace of often-violent attacks on buses and private vehicles and in villages” and “security forces have largely failed to protect the population or investigate the crimes”.
Also in the west many issues remain unsettled: when coming to land, an International Crisis Group document reads, “might is right” and “neither the customary nor modern law is able to regulate” the tenure system. In the same area, at the border with Liberia, attacks are still frequent. In January, two soldiers were killed in Grabo by militiamen reportedly coming from the neighbouring country, while armed robberies are another open issue, according to local witnesses. The slowness in demobilizing and reintegrating the former combatants is part of the problem: according to the United Nations representative in the country, Aïchatou Mindaoudou, after June 2015, the target date set by the Ivorian authorities to complete the initiative, there would still be a surplus of about 14,000 ex-combatants to be rehabilitated.
A call to the people
Despite all these challenges, Mindaudou still feels “optimistic” about the Ivory Coast’s future, underlining mainly the completion of several major infrastructure projects, the return to Abidjan of the headquarters of the African Development Bank and the trust in the new government shown by the international partners. “We must remain vigilant and determined to ensure that the hard-won gains that have helped advance the stability and prosperity of the country are irreversible”, she also said, making clear that the elections, due to be held next autumn, will be a major test for the country.
The same concern was shared by the Catholic bishops, who after meeting in January wrote in a pastoral letter: “In this electoral year, we remember the violence endured by all when the last elections took place. This painful memory is a source of fear, anguish and inquietude”. So, after reviewing the main problems the country has to face, the bishops raised their call to the people: “The time for reconciliation and for the reconstruction of our country has come. Efforts are needed so that our country regains stability, peace and progress once and for all”. An important part has to be played by the government: the Church asks politicians to fight corruption, promote national cohesion, enforce peace and security and reduce unemployment: ambitious goals – surely harder to score than the last penalty in a football cup final.