Ivory Coast leader stirs up his own opposition

DAVID ORR

Abidjan

Opposition activists defied an Ivory Coast government ban on street rallies yesterday, marching through the town of Gagnoa demanding a boycott of Sunday's presidential election. Barricades were erected to halt traffic, and piles of tyres and cars were set on fire, but the security forces stayed away.

The socialist-leaning Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) and the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) - which broke away from the ruling Democratic Party (PDCI) last year - want the election postponed. They argue that the government should withdraw a new electoral law whose main victim has been the former prime minister Alassane Ouattara.

President Henri Konan Bedie has said there is no question of revising the law, which requires presidential candidates to have two Ivorian parents and to have lived continuously in Ivory Coast for five years. That rules out Mr Ouattara, the choice of the RDR, on two counts: his father was born in what is now Burkina Faso, while he has been working with the International Monetary Fund in Washington since last year.

While Mr Ouattara has been keeping a low profile, the FPI leader, Laurent Gbagbo, has become increasingly vocal in his calls for protest action. Demonstrations held earlier this month were the most violent seen in Ivory Coast since independence from France in 1960. Five people were killed in clashes with the security services.

Sunday's presidential poll and legislative elections on 26 November would normally have passed off without a murmur. Politics in Ivory Coast have usually been a placid business with few of the ethnic troubles which beset other African countries. Long one of West Africa's more stable nations, its economy is based on lucrative exports of cocoa and coffee, boosted by huge injections of French aid.

For over three decades after independence, the presidency was held by the legendary Felix Houphouet-Boigny.The end of one-party rule in 1990 changed little, even though his death in 1993 was preceded by a slump as commodity prices fell. But the economy bounced back after the IMF and the World Bank engineered a 50 per cent devaluation of the French-backed Central African Franc in January last year.

Mr Bedie, the former Speaker of the National Assembly, has been acting as unelected head of state since the death of Mr Houphouet-Boigny. As his protege, there has never been any real doubt about his electoral strength.

Why Mr Bedie should have been so insistent on the divisive electoral law is not clear. One theory is that, having been so long in the shadow of his mentor, he simply wanted to make his mark. Houphouet-Boigny's open- door policy produced a peaceful multi-cultural society, but Mr Bedie has decided to play the nationalist card. One of the most far-reaching effects of the new law is to discriminate against the 4 million foreign Africans who make up a third of the population.

Instead of appearing strong and resolute, President Bedie has come across as heavy-handed and intolerant. His outlawing of political rallies and his refusal to entertain proposals for an independent electoral commission have further incensed the opposition. The result has been that he has given his rivals a campaign issue when they would otherwise have been hard pressed to find one.

"In the absence of any real issues, the electoral code has become a symbol of everything the opposition would like to see changed," said one Western ambassador in Abidjan. "What they really want is new political blood, the end of corruption in government and a more open political dialogue."

The danger is not that Mr Bedie or his party might lose the elections. It is rather that his mandate to rule will be diminished if, in response to the opposition boycott, only a small percentage of the electorate turns out to vote.

Whatever the outcome, it is not expected that foreign investment will be affected. With an economic growth rate of 6.5 per cent expected for this year, Ivory Coast can boast the most vibrant economy in West Africa. "Productivity is up and there's room for expansion," says Pierre van den Boogaerde of the IMF in Abidjan. "Foreigners are beginning to look at this place seriously and this interest is, for the first time, going beyond the traditional French market to include the rest of Europe and the United States."

Bolstered by the robust economy, it is hard to imagine that President Bedie has that rough a ride ahead of him. But he seems to have an ability to erect his own obstacles without any prompting from the opposition.

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