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New Ivorian Leader Faces Challenges, Criticism

President Alassane Ouattara's challenge: to reconcile and restore peace to Ivory Coast.
Rebecca Blackwell
President Alassane Ouattara's challenge: to reconcile and restore peace to Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast's incoming president, Alassane Ouattara, who belatedly took the oath of office May 6, has a tough challenge on his hands: to reconcile and restore peace to his West African nation after a bloody and protracted post-election standoff. Mass graves, evidence of extrajudicial executions, forming a national army, setting up a truth-and-reconciliation commission and kick-starting the economy are just some of the hurdles he faces.

Ouattara shot to political prominence in Ivory Coast 20 years ago. Fresh from overseas and a top job at the International Monetary Fund, the U.S.-trained economist had just been appointed the new fix-it technocrat prime minister by founding Ivorian President Felix Houphouet Boigny. Ouattara's admirers describe him as a respected global operator with impeccable credentials. With a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, he had already served as governor of the Central Bank of West African States.

Ouattara's critics had long branded him a foreigner, and he was twice barred from running for Ivory Coast's supreme office because of lingering questions about his nationality. But on Nov. 28, 2010, Election Day, Ouattara's supporters were confidently predicting his victory in the Ivorian election.

Shortly after he cast his vote, the 69-year-old told NPR he was sure to win.

"It's reconciliation first and it's to get people to go to work. Cote d'Ivoire needs to be at work to improve the conditions of the Ivorian people. That is my priority," he said. "Reconciliation and work, work, work."

Record Criticized

Reconciliation is needed because of the bitter split in Ivory Coast, dating back to a 2002 rebellion. Ouattara continues to draw sharp criticism from his detractors, who maintain he was behind the short civil war that ensued. Pro-Ouattara rebels seized control of the center and predominantly Muslim north of the country, which felt marginalized by the political establishment. Ouattara's longtime political foe, then President Laurent Gbagbo held the largely Christian and animist south.

Critics like Gbagbo's erstwhile rabble-rouser and youth minister, Charles Ble Goude, who led a youth militia called the Young Patriots, insist Ouattara declared war on his own country. Ble Goude cites the recent deadly fighting in the commercial capital, Abidjan, during the bruising five-month presidential power struggle and says those threatening Gbagbo's inner circle with prosecution and international justice for possible war crimes should be investigating Ouattara.

If he builds a government that is representative and if he conducts policies which don't seem to show any obvious favor toward one region or ethnic group or another, I think that people will be impressed if they see a healthy management of the nation's resources and economy, giving people jobs, rebuilding.

"I want the outside world to pay attention: Ouattara's supporters, they are distributing weapons to the civilians," he said. "Who are those men killing every day? Those are people who have been given weapons by Ouattara and they are killing and killing. This is not politics. Ouattara is imposing war to us. Who is killing there? You know who is the godfather."

Pro-Gbagbo forces stand accused of turning heavy weapons on civilians in Abidjan, prompting U.N. peacekeeping and French forces to intervene, using attack helicopters against their positions, though critics argue this was a pretext for the former colonial power, France, to use military force to try to uproot Gbagbo.

Both sides face accusations by rights organizations of human rights violations, including targeting civilians. The International Criminal Court, the U.N. Human Rights Commission and others are investigating reports of alleged atrocities in Abidjan and in the lawless west of Ivory Coast.

U.N. human rights investigators and humanitarian groups last week uncovered mass graves in a soccer field in Abidjan, containing at least 68 corpses.

"In two mass graves, there were bodies buried," said Guillaume Ngefa, the deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission's human rights division in Ivory Coast. "All of the victims are male, which witnesses claimed to be killed by pro-Gbagbo militiamen."

Ouattara has pledged to prosecute those found responsible for war crimes. On Wednesday, he decreed three days of national mourning, starting Thursday, in memory of those killed in the conflict.

Gbagbo and his wife, Simone, who are separately under house arrest in the north of Ivory Coast, have already faced preliminary questioning by the state prosecutor. Gbagbo's French lawyers complain that they were not present. They arrived in Abidjan last week, but without valid visas, and were turned back at the airport.

Despite his top-flight global network, at home Ouattara's origins — a Muslim of mixed parentage, Ivorian and Burkinabe, from neighboring Burkina Faso — have, some say, made him a symbol of a decade of divisions over ethnicity and religion, among other contentious issues in Ivory Coast.

"I think what matters is how Ouattara conducts himself," says Howard French, an associate professor at Columbia University and former New York Timescorrespondent who has lived and worked in Ivory Coast. "If he builds a government that is representative and if he conducts policies which don't seem to show any obvious favor toward one region or ethnic group or another, I think that people will be impressed if they see a healthy management of the nation's resources and economy, giving people jobs, rebuilding."

Restoring Order

Before that comes the problem of security in Ivory Coast, especially in Abidjan, which witnessed bloody clashes between rival forces backing Ouattara and disgraced ex-leader Gbagbo, who was arrested on April 11.

Ouattara ordered all fighters, from all sides, to hand in their weapons, but questions remain about whether he can pacify the country and hold together a disparate and fractious military alliance. He instructed his security ministers and military chiefs to forcibly disarm those who failed to surrender their arms.

On April 27, a self-styled general and former rebel commander, Ibrahim "IB" Coulibaly — who fought to propel Ouattara to power — was killed in a firefight with his one-time allies. Ouattara had ordered Coulibaly to disarm or face possible force.

Days before he was killed, Coulibaly pledged allegiance to Ouattara in an interview with NPR, saying he was ready to disarm, but that it would take time to organize "because you can't just leave your weapons on the street."

Before a renewed attack on Coulibaly's positions, his spokesman told NPR that he was expecting to meet Ouattara.

Coulibaly was head of the nicknamed Invisible Commando, which in February first began the fight against Gbagbo's army in Abidjan, in the poor and volatile suburb of Abobo.

But a long-running feud between Coulibaly and Ouattara's prime minister-cum-defense minister, Guillaume Soro — the political head of the former rebels who fought to install Ouattara — appears to have come to a head in a deadly confrontation.

Meanwhile, Ouattara is trying to revive Ivory Coast's crippled cocoa-based economy. Ports, banks, businesses, markets, shops, government offices and schools are slowly reopening, and displaced people are returning home.

Tackling economic matters is supposed to be Ouattara's forte. Recently, Ivory Coast's new national television broadcast a televised tribute of his farewell party at the IMF in 1999, when he was heading back to the political fray in Ivory Coast. Many Western well-wishers praised Ouattara's leadership skills. But critics say his close relationship with France, the U.S., the U.N. and others is proof that Ouattara is the candidate of outsiders and not Ivorians.

"The question of being a lackey of the West or France in particular may take a little bit longer to go away because, in fact, Ivory Coast's recovery will require a great deal of foreign support," French says. "But most Ivorians will want their country to recover, and I don't think there's much of a chance of people holding against him the fact that he has foreign connections if those foreign connections are serving the purpose of national recovery."

As their new leader, Ouattara has the next five years to prove that he's the president of all Ivorians.

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.