Fragile peace holds as elections approach

ABIDJAN, 28 October 2010 (IRIN) - After eight years of waiting, Kandé Bouaké’s joy when he received an ID card confirming he is an Ivorian citizen soon turned to frustration when he was told his voting card had not come through, meaning he might not be able to vote in elections in three days time.
“It would mean so much to me to hold the voting card in my hand,” Kandé, 31, told IRIN in the country’s second largest city of Bouaké. “I’ve been back to the registration centre three times now, and I will still keep trying until I get my card.”
Whether a genuine glitch or foul play, cases like Kandé’s could be an outlet through which the potentially explosive issue of national identity resurfaces after the 31 October presidential elections, meant to cement the reunification of a country divided by issues over ethnicity.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, 90 percent of voter cards had been distributed as of 27 October, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, and 80 percent in the rest of the country. A public holiday has been declared on 29 October to allow more people to pick up their cards.
The Independent Electoral Commission is considering allowing people who appear on the electoral roll to vote even without their electoral cards in a bid to avoid violent protests, Commission president Youssouf Bakayoko said. 
The electoral body has said it will take up unresolved cases of identity after the polls. An estimated 40,000 cases have yet to be judged, a diplomat who wished to remain unnamed, told IRIN.
People unhappy with the outcome of the election - widely expected to go to a second round - could seize on this issue to reject the results, mobilizing violent protests, the diplomat told IRIN. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo is running, as are Henri Konan Bedie of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire and Alassane Ouattara, head of the Rally of Republicans.

Elections have been repeatedly postponed during years of peace efforts since a  2002 rebellion that left the northern half of the country in the hands of the rebel Forces Nouvelles (FN).
Security fears
Security fears persist in a country fractured along ethnic lines. A 21 October UN report expressed concern “that certain media houses are calling for violence and a return to conflict”.
In the south, the Jeunes Patriotes, a pro-Gbagbo youth group, are a focal point of the security fears. Watchard Kdjebo, a Jeunes Patriotes campaign director in Bouaké, central Côte d’Ivoire, said the organization is prepared to do anything it takes on behalf of the incumbent.

“We will not allow those who have plunged this country into division to become president. And even if they become president, we will not allow them to govern this country,” he told IRIN. “It’s unimaginable that our candidate, Gbagbo, could lose this vote.
In northern rebel-controlled territory, some of the population fear violence during or after the elections. A resident in the northern town of Séguéla said despite a peace deal that calls for the disarmament and integration or rebel soldiers in the national army, he feels unsafe:
“My big fear is - who knows how many [rebel] soldiers are out there, each armed with two, three or four guns? Elections or not, that hasn’t changed,” the 23-year old market vendor said.
Under the 2007 peace deal, 4,000 FN rebels have joined combined government-rebel brigades; and some, but by no means all, militias and rebel factions have been disarmed.
But FN leaders are split over how to approach the elections and, most importantly, how to accept the results.
“The Wild West”

Some fear violence will break out in the west – commonly referred to as “the Wild West” due to the state of lawlessness there. 
Earlier this month several thousand unarmed demonstrators momentarily barred the president’s wife from holding a rally to support her husband in the western town of Guiglo.

“It’s true that people remark the western zone is a hotbed, but at the end of the day when I told the population to call off the protests, they did,” Maho Glofiei, the head of the largest pro-government militia group in the region, told IRIN.

His movement, Resistance Movement of Western Côte d’Ivoire, has up to 25,000 members, split into militias, roaming the region, mostly beyond the reach of judicial and legislative institutions. Earlier this month, some petitioned the government for compensation due after handing in their arms.
International observers
State security forces must prepare for potential violence, Human Rights Watch researcher Matt Wells told IRIN. "The decade-long crumbling of the rule of law in Côte d'Ivoire, combined with longstanding impunity for even serious abuses, raises concerns about the mechanisms in place needed to ensure security,” he said.
“State security forces must be ready to respond impartially and quickly, and the government should make clear that it will prosecute those who intimidate or attack voters."
Some 66,000 voting officers who have been recruited to man polling stations have yet to be trained, just days away from the election, the diplomat told IRIN.
National army head Philippe Mangou told IRIN 8,000 troops, made up of national army and FN soldiers, will be sent to secure polling stations, with just over 1,500 deployed so far. A further 6,500 are to be deployed across the country by 29 October.
Some 200 observers from ECOWAS and 100 from the European Union have arrived, and African Union observers are on their way, to help smooth potential problems. The UN Security Council agreed earlier this month to ease an arms embargo in place since 2004 to allow government forces to purchase “non-lethal” riot control gear.
The UN also voted to send up to 500 extra peacekeepers to boost the 8,500 already in the country.
No repeats
In 2000 before the Electoral Commission could announce the results of the vote, protesters took to the streets in violent riots that left dozens dead and prompted the emergency evacuation of several thousand foreigners.
“If there’s any delay in announcing the results to the public, or if results are leaked ahead of time, that could provoke a violent reaction among the population,” a presidential supporter said.
NGOs will not speculate on the likelihood of violence, but said they were taking measures to prepare for possible tensions.
Giuliano Vascotto, operations director for Save the Children, said staff were “well-placed and prepared to respond to meet children’s needs should tensions rise to the point requiring a response”.
The head of the UN Mission in Côte d’Ivoire, Choi Young-Jin, remains upbeat, telling UN radio last week: “We are happy to have virtually completed the major and sensitive challenge of delivering cards.”
Meanwhile the Electoral Commission has distributed more than 300, 000 leaflets to NGOs and civil rights groups calling for peaceful elections, Commission vice-president Coulibaly Gnenema Mamadou said.