Ivory Coast: 2 rival presidents claim office


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast is in a state of confusion with two rival presidents following the disputed election.

Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo had himself sworn in for a new term Saturday, in defiance of the United Nations, the United States and Ivory Coast's own electoral commission, which have all recognized his rival as the legitimate winner of the election.

Opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara who  won 54 percent of the vote, according to the official results, took office a few hours later at a hotel protected by United Nations troops.

Gbagbo took the oath of office in the presidential palace and he held the flag of Ivory Coast, as he vowed not to bow to international pressure to resign.

"These last few days have seen terrible cases of interference," Gbagbo told his supporters at the ceremony. "I call on my fellow countrymen, so that our sovereignty is not damaged, do not call on others to interfere in our affairs."

No diplomats from foreign countries were seen at Gbagbo's ceremony. Leaders of the army appear to support Gbagbo.

A few hours later Ouattara was sworn into office at a hotel using an email sent from an official, according to the BBC. The hotel has become his headquarters and is protected by United Nations guards.

Demonstrators supporting Ouattara burned tires in the streets of Abidjan to protest Gbagbo's move.

Gbagbo claimed victory after the constitutional commission, a separate body from the electoral commission, invalidated results that gave victory to Ouattara in the Nov. 28 poll. The constitutional commission annulled results in seven regions in the north of the country, which is the center of support for Ouattara.

U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy both say Ouattara's victory should be recognized.

"The international community will hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable for their actions," warned Obama, in a statement.

The election was supposed to unite the world's top cocoa producer, which has been divided since 2002 between a rebel-held north and the government-controlled south. But these contested results have accentuated the very divisions that split Ivory Coast, which is emerging from a short civil war and eight years of uneasy coexistence.

Both camps are convinced of their victory, sowing confusion and division in the country.

Ouattara was the first to be declared the winner. The president of the electoral commission, Youssouf Bakayoko, pronounced Ouattara the victor on Thursday with more than 50 percent of the vote.

The announcement came as a surprise and was made by the electoral commission's president in a hotel far from the commission's headquarters. Members of the body had been wrangling for days, and those allied with Gbagbo didn't hesitate to physically block results from being announced, at one point ripping the sheets of paper from a spokesman's hands in front of rolling cameras.

Just hours later, Bakayoko's results — which weren't broadcast on state television or radio — were denounced by the president of the Constitutional Council — the local equivalent of the Supreme Court. Paul Yao N'Dre explained to the nation that the electoral commission had passed the legal deadline to proclaim a victor, and therefore those results were null and void.

Later in the evening, decrees were read on air cutting off all foreign television and radio and sealing the borders of this small west African state, keeping the news of Ouattara's victory from spreading.

But the state couldn't stop the text messages, tweets and Facebook posts that spread like wildfire, and soon, people in Ouattara's northern strongholds were dancing in the streets. For years northerners have complained of discrimination and their calls for equal rights became a rebellion that cut the country in two in 2002.

A Muslim from the north, Ouattara lived in the United States for years, working as an economist with the International Monetary Fund before returning to work with the west African monetary union. He had been prevented from running for president twice before because officials questioned his  nationality. He was only able to run this time because his candidacy was mandated in the 2007 peace accords.

The election was supposed to be the final step in a peace process designed to reunite the country and put all Ivorians, from north and south, under a single government .

Friday afternoon, N'Dre, a close ally of Gbagbo's who co-founded his FPI party in the 1980s, returned to state television to proclaim the incumbent president winner with 51 percent of the vote. This second verdict was accomplished by throwing out almost 600,000 votes, which N'Dre said were invalid due to irregularities including voter intimidation, violence and ballot box stuffing.

Most of the nullified votes were for Ouattara as they came exclusively from regions in the north, where he garnered no less than 85 percent of total votes.

Now it was Gbagbo supporters' turn to dance in the streets, honking their horns and singing their champion's name for all to hear. This time, their celebrations were broadcast live on television, reinforcing the idea across the country that Gbagbo had won.

In the heavily pro-Gbagbo neighborhood of Blokosso in Abidjan, marching bands snaked through the streets surrounded by revellers who sang his campaign songs.

Gbagbo fans associate him with the struggle to rid the country of its colonial-era master, France. He cut his teeth opposing independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny's policy of being best friends with France. Gbagbo even spent time in jail and years in exile.

Gbagbo came to power in 2000, after another election in which both sides claimed victory. But at that time his opponent was the leader of a military putsch who had taken power the year before and he took the presidency after calling on his supporters to take the streets — which they did with deadly results. One week and dozens of deaths later, Gbagbo was president. He had not faced the polls since then.

U.N. Special Representative Young-Jin Choi attempted to break the deadlock Friday by supporting Outtara's victory. He announced that even if the contested votes were thrown out, Ouattara would be the winner of the election.

But his declaration was also blacked out of the national media, and with international channels off the air, it didn't make it to the Ivorian people.

As night descended on the commercial capital of Abidjan, both sides were celebrating despite a nationwide curfew that was supposed to keep people off the streets.

Nearly a week after the election, Ivory Coast has two people who claim to be the legitimately elected president, and that spells trouble for the country's efforts to unite and consolidate its peace and stability.