Ivory Coast: Two presidents, one crisis

By John James
BBC News, Abidjan

Image caption,
The election dispute has prompted days of street protests

At a petrol station in Abidjan's Cocody district, about 50 people wait in line, and a queue of cars runs out on to the road.

These people are waiting for gas - not what Americans call gas, but bottled natural gas, which is in short supply.

"They're refusing to unload the bottles," says an exasperated Michel, who has been waiting for several hours.

It is increasingly difficult to find gas in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast - a country with two presidents and two prime ministers (and three first ladies, joke the wags).

Almost all the international community and the Ivorian independent electoral commission recognise the opposition leader and former International Monetary Fund economist, Alassane Ouattara, as the winner of the 28 November poll.

But Laurent Gbagbo, who has been president since 2000, is keen to stay on. He is backed by the Constitutional Court, which annulled about half a million votes from Mr Ouattara's strongholds and swore Mr Gbagbo in for another five years.

A presidential election that was supposed to close a chapter on a decade of violence and instability is starting to look like simply another paragraph in a story of endless political wrangling.

Deja vu

Businesses are only timidly reopening. Economic life in the world's biggest cocoa producer shut down while Ivorians waited for the results.

Now they are waiting to see what the results mean.

"We wait until nine o'clock in the morning before heading out to work," said Dr Coulibaly, who works at a medical clinic in Cocody.

An overnight curfew keeps people in their homes until sunrise, and Abidjan has seen several days of street protests by opposition supporters unhappy at what they see as a stolen victory.

At the packed main market in the city's Adjame district, prices have shot up because of a lack of deliveries from the interior.

The price of beef has gone up by 25% in the past week, and potatoes are up by 60%.

Very little cocoa is being transported to Abidjan from growing areas, as people are afraid that stocks could be destroyed during riots. Cocoa prices have risen to a four-month high.

"I don't think we're going to be out of the mess for the next month - it's going to drag on for years," said Eric, a local journalist.

"It looks like deja vu," he said.

The previous presidential elections held 10 years ago were judged "calamitous" even by their eventual winner, Laurent Gbagbo.

That time, both Mr Gbagbo and the incumbent military leader General Robert Guei proclaimed victory, holding swearing-in ceremonies a day apart.

This time, the oaths were taken hours apart; one at the presidential palace, one "by letter".

'Hotel republic'

"There is only one president in Ivory Coast - the winner is Dr Alassane Dramane Ouattara," said Toure, a supporter speaking near the Riviera district hotel where Mr Outtara's "government" is based.

Image caption,
UN peacekeepers are protecting the hotel where Mr Outtara's "government" is based

The luxury Golf hotel is heavily protected by razor wire and UN peacekeepers, with three tanks parked at the main entrance.

"He's been recognised by all the UN, Europe and all the world - he is the only one. We want democracy in Africa; Gbagbo is finished," Toure says.

But Vanessa, a Gbagbo supporter, sees things differently.

"The hotel is a republic," she jokes. "This is the presidential palace of Alassane. Gbagbo's is over on the side. So really, we've got two presidential palaces."

Others say say Mr Ouattara might effectively become president of the north of Ivory Coast, where he is most popular.

On Saturday, he accepted the resignation of the prime minister for the past three and a half years - former rebel leader Guillaume Soro - and promptly reappointed him.

Mr Soro controls the New Forces rebel movement, which has only partially disarmed and controls 60% of Ivorian territory in the north.

Mr Ouattara himself comes from the north and won a huge majority there in the first round of elections. In the second round, Mr Gbagbo's supporters annulled around half a million votes in the north, giving them a technical victory at the Constitutional Council.

Vanessa says Mr Gbagbo is a born political fighter and will come out on top.

"He's already said, a thousand dead to my left and a thousand to my right, he'll move forward."

Some 17 years since the death of Ivory Coast's founding president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the country has still to find its way, nostalgic for a past when Ivory Coast was a bastion of stability and prosperity in West Africa.

"It's a shame Houphouet is dead - because if he was alive we wouldn't be seeing all this. That's the truth. It's because Houphouet-Boigny is dead," said Vanessa.

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