Ivory Coast: Can Koulibaly's party win in 2011?

President Ouattara has promised parliamentary elections in Côte d'Ivoire before the end of the year. Who will champion the south?

A national divide sparked two civil wars in the past ten years, the last after disputed elections resulted in incumbent president Laurent Gbabo's capture and Alasane Ouattara's victory. The latter had been viewed by the international community as legitimate election winner, while the former attempted to cling onto power from his southern support base.

According to The Economist, Ouattara has "made a fair start but must curb militias and cut corruption". Gbabo and eighty colleagues will face trial, possibly outside the country at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. His political party is in tatters. So the south needs a new champion, one who could realistically and democratically confront the power of President Ouattara. 

Mamadou Koulibaly, president of the National Assembly for the past decade, has quit the previously dominant yet now disintegrated Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) to form his own party. Could his time have come?

Koulibaly's credibility is sound, as a former senior FPI figure in charge of economic and West African policy areas. And by distancing himself this year from FPI hardliners, still in denial over Ouattara's victory, he has positioned himself to take on the President in a plausible fashion in a national poll.

The divide in the Ivory Coast seems to stem from the Abidjanais' belief in Ivoirité, a nationalistic view that Côte d'Ivoire belongs to the Akan and Bété, and not to Burkinabé migrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and countries to the north. 

During the cocoa boom decades when President Félix Houphouët-Boigny ruled supreme, migrants poured into the Ivory Coast to take advatage of its stability and wealth. It was the envy of West Africa, and its commercial capital of Abidjan developed into a thriving modern metropolis. L'Abidjanaise had been adopted as the national anthem at independence in 1960, demonstrating the perceived power-source in the country. Akan concerns over vast and seemingly unsustainable migrant numbers were raised in private but suppressed in public.

When Houphouët-Boigny's successor Henri Konan Bédié was elected in 1993 he stoked the flames of dissent, and Ivoirité became the mantra. It all came to a head as Bédié competed with Ouattara for political supremecy, with Outtara's paternal Burkinabé ancestry employed to bar him from office.

A coup in 1999 brought Robert Guéï to power, but Gbabo assumed the presidency after a disputed election in 2000 at which neither Bédié nor Ouattara had been permitted to stand. War ensued 2002-7 and a peace deal, brokered by ex-colonial power France, allowed candidates with foreign parents to stand for office. The 2010 election resulted in a split nation once again, with Gbabo supported from the south, and Ouattara from the north.  

The 1998 population breakdown looked like this:

Akan (southerners with close bonds to Ghanaian Fante and Ashanti) 42.1%
Voltaic or Gur (northerners) 17.6%
Northern Mande (northerners) 16.5%
Kru (westerners originally from Liberia) 11%
Southern Mande (northerners) 10%
Others 2.8%.

It's fairly clear then as to why the Akan ethnicities should have become so concerned about their hold on power in what they saw as their own turf. They had become a minority in the Ivory Coast.

An inclusive and charismatic politician of stature and experience from the south would be needed to present a forthright challenge at any upcoming poll. The interest of indigenous Ivorians cannot be ignored, and unless the country divides into two a lasting accommodation with incomers must be reached. Ouattara might be making a "fair start" but has he won over the Akan? This is unlikely.

Mamadou Koulibaly is a formidable politician. His new party has only just been registered, yet its natural constituency would probably gravitate towards it seemlessly. its support-base is large, therefore, but would they command respect in the north? Although a Gbabo loyalist, Koulibaly never actually took sides in the recent conflict.

But racist attacks in 2011 on Gbabo's Bété tribe of a Kru ethnicity and language, together with attacks on Koulibaly's home and National Assembly offices have done little to dampen the smouldering embers which linger after recent fighting.

To win over support from the people with northern roots, Koulibaly's team will need to impress on them their desire for a modern inclusive Côte d'Ivoire. Koulibaly himself has stressed reconciliation, but have either hotheaded southerners or long-thwarted northerners heard those calls?

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