ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s presidential hopefuls are exchanging increasingly hostile rhetoric ahead of Sunday’s run-off vote, fuelling fears that violence could overshadow what is expected to be a tight race.
President Laurent Gbagbo faces Alassane Ouattara in a poll that is meant to reunite the top cocoa grower after it was split in two by war in 2002. But the race is too close to call and there is a risk of trouble if the polls are contested.
The tone in this grudge match is getting increasingly nasty as they blame each other for a decade of instability.
“The snake is not yet dead. Don’t drop your clubs,” Gbagbo said of Ouattara at a rally on the weekend — a figure of speech his young supporters seemed to take literally a day before, when they used clubs and machetes in clashes with Ouattara’s youths.
“I am on guard when I see dark clouds over Ivory Coast ... I will never accept it (Ouattara taking power),” he said.
In a rally in the main commercial city of Abidjan, Ouattara, a former prime minister and IMF deputy director, responded:
“It is you, Laurent Gbagbo, who brought violence to the politics of Ivory Coast. It is a coup d’etat that brought you to power,” he said, referring to the violent demonstrations that enabled Gbagbo to become president after a disputed 2000 poll.
Videos are circulating appearing to show leaders of a 2002 rebellion saying they were in league with Ouattara, who hit back, “Ivory Coast is tired of your fabrications,” at a rally.
Fears of violence after the announcement of results from the first round forced cocoa exporters to close down operations and Ivorians are conscious the stakes will be higher in the run-off.
“The verbal abuse of the two leaders against each other is not reassuring,” said Patrick N’Gouan, president of the Ivorian Civil Society Convention, a local democracy campaign group.
“These are words likely to divide Ivorians and encourage violence at a very sensitive time,” he said.
The five years’ overdue poll is meant to reunite Ivory Coast after its northern half was seized by rebels, but the electoral battle lines are starting to look ominously similar to the ethnic and territorial ones of the original conflict.
The rebel-held north and bits of Abidjan inhabited by mostly Muslim northerners voted overwhelmingly for Ouattara in the first round, enabling him to take 32 percent of the poll.
The government-run, mostly Christian south tended to vote Gbagbo, who got 38 percent. A middle belt of ethnic Baoule voters went for Henri Konan Bedie. Both candidates are vying for those votes, 25 percent of the last round.
“Who wants another war?” the Nord-Sud daily said on Tuesday, noting that exchanging blame for the crisis won’t help solve it.
“Far from the friendly atmosphere of the first round, these volleys of vicious words are going to degenerate into physical confrontation,” the paper’s editorial wrote the day before.
Gbagbo has sought to paint Ouattara as a stooge of foreign interests, particularly of former colonial ruler France.
“There are two kinds of candidates,” he has told several rallies. “One for Ivory Coast, and one for the foreigners.”
His language plays on xenophobic fears Ouattara is really from Burkina Faso. Gbagbo says he isn’t referring to Ouattara’s origins, but his supporters don’t doubt what he really means.
“Ouattara is Burkinabe. He doesn’t really care about Ivory Coast,” said Gilbert Gnedia, a pro-Gbagbo student from the west.
Besides videos, Gbagbo’s party is circulating copies of a 1984 Jeune Afrique magazine article which said Ouattara is of Burkinabe parents, a claim which barred him from previous polls.
The danger of revisiting this nationalism is that it is largely what divided Ivory Coast in the first place.
In a land that has attracted migrants from neighbouring countries to work cocoa farms, populist politicians used local land disputes to rally against “foreigners”, often northern Ivorians with ties to Burkina Faso or Mali, ultimately triggering the rebellion.
“Just when we prayed to see the pieces put back together, we find ourselves caught in a tide of ethnocentric, regionalist, tribal debate,” a religious leaders’ group said in a statement.
If things turns nasty, like in Kenya or Zimbabwe, a deal may have to be struck to stop any violence that ensues.
“There’s a dirty story between them and they both absolutely want that power. It’s very unlikely they’ll find an agreement,” said the International Crisis Group’s Rinaldo Depagne.