Election Will Not Solve Ivory Coast's Problems In The Troubled African Nation, A Would-be Dictator Is Expected To Call Himself Victor Of Today's Race.

Posted: October 22, 2000

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Alassane Ouattara's supporters are camped on the streets around his house in a luxurious Abidjan suburb, sleeping on reed mats with their clothes hung to dry over high concrete walls like refugees in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes.

Though they believe the former prime minister should be Ivory Coast's next president, Ouattara's supporters will boycott today's presidential election, which was meant to mark the transition to civilian rule in this West African nation of 16 million people.

"We're here to protect our president," said Cylan Amadu, 26, a militant in Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans party. "We hear the government wants to find a pretext to come and arrest him. Whatever the government wants to do, they'll have to pass over our dead bodies."

They and many Ivorians believe that today's voting will be rigged to elect the military ruler, Gen. Robert Guei, who came into power last December in Ivory Coast's first coup in 40 years of independence.

"We decided to boycott the election because it is clear Guei will declare himself the winner," said Ouattara, 58, a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

The election in Ivory Coast is fast developing into a test of the world's resolve to end military takeovers as an accepted way to change governments.

Guei's efforts to undercut his competition have been so egregious that the international community has practically declared the election null before the first vote is cast.

The United States, the European Union and former colonial parent France withdrew funding for the election this month and told observers to go home after Guei's courts disqualified most rival candidates, including Ouattara.

Even the Organization of African Unity, never known for taking a bold stand against dictators, has objected to Guei's tactics. It is concerned that ethnic turmoil in Ivory Coast, one of the largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa, will unsettle an already tense region.

Guei's 10 months in power have quickly become a caricature for an African military takeover, following a predictable, discredited script. He initially said he only sought to restore economic order and did not want to be president, but he appears to have become seduced by power.

His government has imprisoned dissidents, beaten journalists, and banned opposition rallies. His wife has been spotted on expensive shopping missions to Paris. He has promised bonuses to soldiers to keep them loyal and lucrative appointments to induce members of the former ruling party to come to his side.

"The same thing is happening in Ivory Coast in 2000 that happened in other parts of Africa in the '60s and '70s," said Ouattara. "We're regressing."

Guei seems to be relying upon the hope that the international community will drop its objections after the election. Much will depend upon whether neighboring African countries recognize the new government.

"He's cunning," said a Western diplomat. "He knows exactly what he's doing. I think he believes the election will give him legitimacy."

Ivory Coast, one of Africa's more prosperous nations, does not have a strong democratic tradition. Felix Houphouet-Boigny, its first president after independence from France in 1960, ruled for 33 years until his death.

His ruling Democratic Party of Ivory Coast enjoyed a one-party state for three decades. While shunning socialism that won favor in much of Africa, Ivory Coast grew impressively under Houphouet-Boigny. Skyscrapers rose in downtown Abidjan, the capital, and its suburbs expanded with wealthy Ivorians schooled in European manners.

Ivory Coast was so prosperous that it imported labor from neighboring nations, such as Burkina Faso and Ghana, to work vast cacao, rubber and coffee plantations. Forty percent of Ivory Coast's 16 million people are immigrants, unlike most African countries that shun foreigners.

But Houphouet-Boigny's successor, Henri Konan Bedie, was unable to maintain the growth. With pressure from international lenders to liberalize its economy, along with a downturn in commodity prices, Ivory Coast's fortunes plummeted. Ivorians turned against immigrants, sparking xenophobic attacks on foreign workers.

Ouattara, who served as Houphouet-Boigny's last prime minister, announced last year that he would return from his IMF post in Washington to run for president. Bedie amended the constitution to exclude candidates whose parents were born outside Ivory Coast and then engineered a campaign to discredit Ouattara as the son of immigrants. Ouattara denied it.

Amid rising protests against the anti-Ouattara campaign, soldiers went on a rampage in December and unseated Bedie. The coup organizers asked Guei to take over as president, and Guei promised to restore order.

While initially saying he merely wanted to oversee a transition to civilian rule, Guei demonstrated autocratic tendencies early on. Within a month, he became vague about whether he would run for president.

While initially signaling that he would welcome Ouattara's candidacy, Guei introduced a new constitution in July that maintained the ban on candidates with foreign-born parents. Guei's supporters also stepped up a campaign to isolate Muslims, who are largely from the northern part of the country and make up the core of Ouattara's support.

In arguments to exclude Ouattara from the ballot, Guei's attorneys produced a falsified copy of Ouattara's 1966 wedding certificate when he was a student in Philadelphia that listed his father's residence as Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso.

Even after the Washington Post dug up a copy of Ouattara's original wedding certificate from the Philadelphia courts - it listed his parents only as African - the court disqualified him, along with 13 of the other 19 candidates.

The Democratic Party, whose candidate also was disqualified, has joined Ouattara's party in a call to boycott the vote - those two parties could be expected to get two-thirds of the vote. No party is supporting Guei, whose campaign posters proclaim: "My Party is the People."

The government also has cracked down on critics after a failed assassination attempt against Guei last month. Hundreds of dissidents are being held at a military prison in the Abidjan suburb of Akouendo. Guei canceled plans to campaign and has made few public appearances.

Journalists are discouraged from asking too many questions. Joachim Beugre, the political editor of Le Jour, a daily newspaper in Abidjan, raised questions about Guei's own parentage and was summoned before the president last month before being hauled away and beaten by three military officers. He was hospitalized for four days, sparking journalists to go on a one-day sympathy strike.

"He is going to use all means necessary to stay in power," Beugre said. "He's putting in place a dictatorship."

Ouattara, sitting in his garden at a table covered with the morning newspapers and three cellular telephones, said he had ordered his supporters to remain peaceful during the election boycott.

If Guei wins, as expected, Ouattara hopes the international community will not recognize the election, the economy will continue to deteriorate, and that Guei will be forced to resign. If not, he expects discontent will continue to increase in the military.

"We might get into successive coups, and the next military man might be worse than him," he said.

Andrew Maykuth's e-mail address is andrew.maykuth@phillynews.com

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