Below is an article I wrote for a news outlet while in Abidjan, but ultimately pulled for an assortment of reasons. I argue that ordinary young Ivorians are losing with each election delay, while the political elite–even those who are not in the president’s camp–benefit from the status quo. ( To catch up on what’s been going on in the country this past week, check out John James’ reporting on the BBC and Reuters coverage.)
As always, I welcome any feedback.
With No Elections, Young Ivorians Lose
Djibril’s electronics store feels too big for its wares. Desktop computers and fax machines are spread across shelves, with large spaces between items. “You can go one or two weeks without selling anything,” Djibril said. So he doesn’t keep much in stock. “For people, the priority is to get food, not buying a USB key.”
Djibril’s store is on Rue du Commerce, one of the busiest streets in downtown Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, in West Africa. But business has not been good.
Ivory Coast is in a political limbo. Elections have been delayed six times since 2005, when the country’s civil war abated.
A diverse array of political and economic elite benefit from the political status quo. But the losers are ordinary young Ivorians like Djibril, who struggle to expand their businesses or find jobs, held hostage by an economy stalled until elections take place.
More than 40 percent of Ivorians are younger than 15. Unless the political situation changes, the ranks of un- and under-employed will swell.
President Laurent Gbagbo benefits with each election delay. Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa exporter, and Gbagbo controls revenue from cocoa harvested in the country’s south.
If elections were held today, Gbagbo might not win. Since he was elected in 2000, the number of registered voters has increased dramatically. Many of the new voters live in the north, where he lacks strong support. Thus Gbagbo has a “vested interest in delaying the elections as much as possible,” according to a recent International Crisis Group report.
But nor is there a guaranteed victory for either of the main opposition candidates, Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié. Ouattara is popular in the north, but lacks national appeal. Opponents claim he is not Ivorian, and his frequent trips to France work against him, as anti-French sentiment in Ivory Coast is high. Bédié leads the party that ran Ivory Coast for the four decades after independence. His base is among the Akan, the country’s largest ethnic group. Yet Bédié is 75 years old, and his nostalgia for the good old days rings hollow among youth.
Moreover, in the event of a run-off, it is unclear that Bédié supporters would vote for Ouattara, or vice versa. Both opposition parties control a handful of positions in the current transitional government. They may calculate that it is better to control some ministries than risk losing everything with elections.
The New Forces, a rebel group controlling the north of the country, pockets money every day that passes without elections. Credible elections will bring the north back under control of the government, starving rebels of cocoa, coffee, and diamond profits. Global Witness, an environmental watchdog group, estimates the New Forces have earned $30 million each year since 2004 from cocoa alone.
The losers of this transitional arrangement are ordinary young Ivorians. Foreign investors are reluctant to put money into the country until elections take place. As a result, jobs for young Ivorians—even for the most educated—are scarce.
Koffi Kouadio Constant is 26 and works at a photography studio in Abidjan. Many of his friends cannot find jobs. He attributes this in part to reluctance among entrepreneurs to invest and consumers to spend. People “don’t want to spend money in this situation,” he said. “We are not in peace, we are not in war.”
Young Ivorians in the north also struggle. The de facto rebel government invests little money in public education. With their cocoa profits, they have no need for taxes from civilians, and thus limited desire to provide public services.
France, the United Nations, and America have all exerted pressure on Ivory Coast to hold elections, to no avail. France has troops in the country supporting UN peacekeepers, but wants to normalize relations with Ivory Coast and pull them out.
“They cannot dance faster than the music,” said an Ivorian journalist, referring to the seeming impotence of foreign powers. There is only so much effect the international community can have when the political stakes are so high.
But, the journalist notes, if elections would reignite conflict, then the country is not losing by waiting. Ivory Coast’s war was rooted in land tensions, unequal distribution of state resources, and the manipulation of ethnicity for political ends. To a large extent, these problems remain unresolved.
Djibril, the electronics store owner, motions to the sparsely populated shelves in his store. He is optimistic. “There will be more things on the shelves after the elections” he said. “After the elections, things will be better. People are waiting.”