WASHINGTON — Election day in Ivory Coast came and went, but the race is far from over yet.

Observers gave the presidential vote on Oct. 31 high marks, and Ivorians appear to have accepted the results. Given the country’s disastrous recent history, these are achievements in and of themselves.

The true test will be on Nov. 28, when a runoff is planned between the top two candidates, neither of whom won a majority. Current president Laurent Gbagbo, a French-educated academic and opposition leader, will run against his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim and former International Monetary Fund economist educated in the United States.

It's the runoff that will test Ivorian political will to restore national unity.

Ivory Coast thrived as West Africa’s most developed country during the rule of pro-Western but authoritarian Felix Houphouet-Boigny from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. With France guaranteeing political stability with its military base outside Abidjan, there was investment in agriculture, and the country became rich from cocoa, coffee and sugar exports.

Houphouet-Boigny, who regarded himself as both French and African, maintained an “open door” to immigrants from other francophone states that provided the labor for the economy to boom.

However, Houphouet-Boigny did nothing to prepare the country for an eventual political transition.

After his death, the successor government of President Henri Konan Bedie was increasingly corrupt and inept. Bedie sponsored the concept of “Ivoirite,” a form of Ivorian nationalism shading into xenophobia, as a means to assert the country’s post-colonial identity and to strengthen his political position.

“Ivoirite” involved excluding from political life those of immigrant descent, including Ouattara, whose mother was from Burkina Faso. He also arrested his political rivals, and alienated many in the north, including those serving in the military.

A 1999 military coup overthrew President Bedie and initiated a chain of subsequent attempted coups culminating in the presidency of Laurent Gbagbo and a year of civil war that ended in 2003. The cease-fire was negotiated by the Africa Union and France, but clashes continued.

In the decade after Houphouet-Boigny’s death, the violence and political maneuverings took place against falling cocoa and coffee prices. Absent a strongman and with declining French influence, Bedie and other politicians appropriated ethnic, religious and, notably, “Ivoirite” identities to mobilize their personal political support.

While the north felt increasingly marginalized, xenophobia increased in the south. Northerners widely supported a military-led 2002-2003 revolt against Bedie’s successor, President Laurent Gbagbo. The rebellion soon spread to the western part of the country, involving irregulars from Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In 2005, a peace agreement negotiated by South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki and sponsored by the Africa Union de facto partitioned the country, leaving the north in rebel hands. In the north, a civilian politician, Guillaume Soro, established a parallel government with the help of some of the Ivoirian expatriate community, who were sympathetic to the rebel cause, and the acquiescence of the rebelling military units, the Forces Nouvelles.

Soro subsequently became prime minister in Gbagbo’s government, indicating his attempts to at least pay lip service to the concept of national unity. While a later 2007 peace agreement negotiated by the Economic Community of West African States was supposed to restore national unity, de facto partition continues, and the Forces Nouvelles are not integrated into the Ivorian military.

Soro rules the north with the support of the Forces Nouvelles and probably receives support from Burkina Faso. President Gbagbo rules the south with the support of para-militaries, notably the “Young Patriots,” some of whom are accused of extra-judicial killings and summary executions of opponents.

The two presidential candidates facing the Nov. 28 runoff personify Ivory Coast's fractures. On Oct. 31, Laurent Gbagbo received most of his votes from the Christian south and west. He probably capitalized on the anti-immigrant backlash and appeal to Christian solidarity.

Ivorians commonly associate Outtara with the northern rebellion, though he denies the link, and during the recent polling, the Forces Nouvelles claimed neutrality. Nevertheless, the region voted mostly for him.

The runoff will test whether Ivory Coast is moving beyond its divisions. With only two candidates, a Muslim from the north with immigrant ties and a Christian from the south who in the past has taken a hard line against the rebellion, there can be only one victor.

There is, therefore, a risk that the voting will further polarize the country. However, most Ivoirians appear to support a united Ivory Coast and do not see the partition as permanent. If the elections are credible and Ivoirians accept the results, the country will have a president with the political space to promote reconciliation.

The Oct. 31 credible elections are a hopeful sign that Ivory Coast may have turned around. It is also a positive sign that Gbagbo softened his hard line on the rebellion and acquiesced in the end to elections.

However, the two presidential candidates represent no generational change and they both carry heavy political baggage. Neither has demonstrated the exceptional political skills that genuine reconciliation will require.

It remains an open question as to whether the political landscape in Ivory Coast has changed for the better.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

Related Stories