ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Former South African leader Thabo Mbeki sought on Sunday to mediate an end to a dispute over Ivory Coast’s presidential election that has threatened to trigger unrest in the divided West African nation.
The November 28 poll, designed to reunite a country split after a 2002-2003 civil war, has raised tensions as both incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and his challenger Alassane Ouattara have claimed victory and taken presidential oaths.
In the northern town of Bouake, the stronghold of rebels opposed to Gbagbo, tens of thousands of Ouattara supporters demonstrated outside the local headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission demanding that Gbagbo step down.
“ADO President!” chanted his supporters. Ouattara is widely known by his initials. The mood at the rally was generally calm.
“A situation like Rwanda or Kenya would be a nightmare, which we are working tirelessly to avoid,” South Africa’s envoy to Ivory Coast, Zodwa Lallie, told Reuters, noting similarities with Kenya’s election in 2007 when a disputed result degenerated into ethnic bloodshed that killed at least 1,300 people.
Mbeki was expected to hold talks with Gbagbo on Sunday and meet Ouattara at the U.N.-guarded Abidjan hotel he is using as headquarters. South African officials said the Mbeki visit was due to last one day.
Few observers hope for an immediate breakthrough. Mbeki mediated in the post-war crisis and several peace deals were signed but the process eventually stalled.
Gbagbo had then opened talks with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, whose mediation led to a 2007 deal on a power-sharing government.
Gbagbo was sworn in as president as the world’s top cocoa grower on Saturday even though the electoral commission declared Ouattara winner according to provisional results. Ouattara has submitted a rival oath and vowed to form a parallel government.
Gbagbo has controlled the country for a decade but now faces isolation and possibly sanctions. His win was rejected by the United States, France, the European Union, the African Union and West African bloc ECOWAS.
The United Nations has also refused to recognise Gbagbo.
The Constitutional Council, the country’s highest legal organ with final word on the election and headed by an ally of Gbagbo, cancelled hundreds of thousands of votes in Ouattara bastions. It cited intimidation and fraud by rebel soldiers who run these areas, and declared Gbagbo the winner.
The provisional result was certified by U.N. peacekeeping envoy to Ivory Coast, Y.J. Choi, who received copies of the count from almost every polling station. He said that even if all the fraud allegations were true, they still could not have changed the outcome announced by the election commission.
The crisis in Ivory Coast, once West Africa’s brightest economic star, has sent cocoa futures up to two-week highs and forced up the risk premium on the country’s $2.3 billion Eurobond. It is currently yielding 11.67 percent, from below 10 percent after the first election round.
Small-scale protests and tyre-burning broke out on Saturday in several towns, including the largest city, Abidjan, and in Bouake in the north. At least 15 people have been killed.
New Forces rebel commander Cherif Ousmane warned that his followers would “not rest for long without doing something” about Gbagbo if he continues to hold onto power.