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Cote d'Ivoire Election Monitoring, 2010-2011

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Cote d’Ivoire Election Monitoring

2010 Presidential Election, 2011 Legislative Election

Cote d’Ivoire’s election authorities invited the Carter Center to observe its upcoming presidential elections in 2005. What ensued was a mission that lasted from 2007 until 2011. Mission leader Dr. John Stremlau stated that “rarely has an observation mission been extended so long, revealed so many difficult administrative and political challenges, or posed such physical dangers to staff and monitors as in Cote d’Ivoire.”[1] Civil strife and a near civil war impeded election plans severely. This strife was related to a 2002 coup d’état that was further related to the death of former president Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993. Cote d’Ivoire’s competing political factions attempted over a dozen agreements and accords but “the commitments made within these various frameworks could not be sustained or were only partially implemented in a context of bitter distrust among actors.”[2] The 2007 peace accords, facilitated in Burkina Faso, finally gave hope to the idea that these elections could be held, but the elections did not take place until 2010. The accords also provided for involvement of and certification by the United Nations, with the aim to “restore peace, promote genuine national reconciliation, and achieve political and institutional normalization in the country through permanent dialogue and mutual trust.”[3] 

With this framework in place, the Carter Center established a field office in 2008 with the initial mission to observe voter identification and registration, its efforts supplemented by support from ECOWAS, the African Union, and the United Nations, among others. Many individuals provided leadership, spearheaded by the Carter Center’s John Stremlau and former Ghanaian president John Kufuor. The initial goal of the Carter Center’s mission was to provide an impartial assessment of the voter identification and registration process, with the aim that this would help create legitimacy and transparency for a country that sorely needed it. Following this, the Center would observe the actual election and its subsequent runoff. The Center deployed observers in three phases from 2008 to 2010 to do so.[4]

2010 Presidential Election

Cote d’Ivoire’s electoral commission (CEI) oversaw and was responsible for the processes of the 2010 presidential election. There were numerous issues in all phases of the process, and the Carter Center observed at times that it seemed the CEI was more willing to place the weight of responsibility on outside helpers, such as the UN delegation, than to take responsibility itself. The Center noted “the effective abdication of the CEI from planning a systematic campaign…” in issues like voter education.[5] The political realities of the Ivorian situation also posed great challenges. A significant amount of tension existed between the candidates, particularly between sitting President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) political party and Alassane Ouattara of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR). Rebel groups, notably the Forces Nouvelles (FN) also supported Ouattara, adding to the tension. There were widespread problems registering voters and the Carter Center claimed that the total number of registered voters only represented 73% of the total eligible population.[6] There were several incidents of candidate misconduct. For example, Gbagbo would consistently use the privileges of state resources to campaign, and the Center noted that “the official visit of President Gbagbo to Korhogo…for which state resources were used, in reality had all the trappings of a campaign meeting.”[7] There were also many logistical issues that created great inefficiencies, but these seem to be related mostly to inadequate communication and transparency on the part of the CEI as well as poor training for election staff rather than any malicious intention.

Taking into consideration all of these issues, the Center claimed the elections to be legitimate. The outcome gave 54.1 percent of votes to Ouattara and 45.9 percent to Gbagbo, according to the UN.[8] The Center lauded the calm election day environment and urged for a peaceful transition of power between the defeated incumbent and his democratically elected successor.[9] This would be a major achievement for the Ivoirian political system, but what occurred was a complete breakdown of that system. Gbagbo made heavy accusations of voter fraud in the already pro-Ouattara north and fought the results. One of his supporters even “tore up the provisional IEC results on live television just as the IEC spokesman, Bamba Yacouba, was about to publicly announce them.” In addition, Gbagbo took to radio and television to spread propagandistic messages solidifying his position.[10] The heavily partisan Constitutional Court backed him in his claims. A standoff then occurred between Ouattara, who was backed by all international observers and whose election was certified by the representative of the UN secretary general as per the Ouagadougou Accords, and Gbagbo. This plunged the country into open conflict, culminating in an offensive known as the Second Ivoirian Civil War. Both sides committed heinous acts, including over 800 deaths in the city of Duekoue, and CNN reported a Doctors Without Borders representative in Abidjan stating that “if you’re out on the streets, you’re basically a target.”[11] In the end, the pro-Ouattara Forces Nouvelles and UN forces (mainly French) fought their way to the presidential residence and arrested Gbagbo.[12] Ouattara took his place as the legitimate president shortly thereafter.

2011 Legislative Election

The conflict in the wake of elections that the Center had observed to be largely free and fair was extremely disappointing to all observers, and its consequences resulted in the Center staying on past its original mission to observe the 2011 legislative elections. The elections were a major undertaking as the country had to rebuild not just its electoral structure but also all of its institutions. The economic and banking systems were moribund. Infrastructure was severely damaged. The country’s new leadership also had to address the issue of massive numbers of displaced and disenfranchised people: The conflict had produced several thousand deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and over 1 million internally displaced people, according to the UNHCR.[13] Going into the electoral process, the country had bottom marks from Freedom House in political rights.[14] As expected, there were major difficulties in setting up and carrying out these elections. Election authorities operated based off of antiquated documents and ad hoc lawmaking and, predictably, logistics of carrying out national elections just months after a major civil conflict were hyperbolically difficult. Voter education was lacking. Violence was isolated but present in several western areas. Several candidates violated campaign finance laws. Gbagbo’s opposition party boycotted the entire election, demanding he be released and his assets unfrozen. Through these obstacles, the Carter Center did note that election day was a calm affair and that the elections themselves were largely free and fair, and the Center “highlights the generally peaceful voting environment and the absence of major security incidents during the polls.”[15] Voter turnout, though, was quite low, which was likely due in no small part to the fallout from civil war. The BBC reported one Ivoirian voter explaining that “many people lost their identity cards during the crisis, so they can’t vote.”[16] As expected with no real opposition party, the RDR did quite well, firmly establishing itself as the majority party.

Developments Since Monitoring

Since the climactic events of 2010-2011, Cote d’Ivoire has made major steps toward stabilization. There is a long way to go, as evidenced from U.S. President Obama’s declaration of a continued state of emergency in the country in 2015.[17] Brookings also argued that there has not been sufficient overhauling of the old legal and political infrastructure to avoid questions of legitimacy.[18] National and international observers did, however, view that year’s presidential elections to be free, fair, and transparent, with Ouattara winning reelection with a commanding 84% of the vote, though the proportion of eligible voters who actually went out to the polling stations was only about 54%.[19] Cote d’Ivoire is also economically in a much better place than it was at the time of the previous election, with strong economic growth holding steady 9% in 2015. Ouattara’s critics have pointed out alarming authoritarian leanings, though, and many poorer Ivoirians have not yet seen their standards of life improve with economic growth. There are major questions about a possible power vacuum when Ouattara’s second and final term ends in 2020.[20] Cote d’Ivoire’s progress since the civil war of 2011 is remarkable, but these concerns may well shape the political conversation in coming years.  

Contribution of the Carter Center

Observed and helped create an air of legitimacy in the 2010 and 2011 Ivoirian elections.

Stood by and helped lend international legitimacy to the democratically elected Ouattara in the face of an attempted hostile takeover by Gbagbo

Recommended improvements to Cote d’Ivoire’s election procedures include:

  • Clarification of gray areas in the legal code
  • Updates to antiquated parts of the legal code
  • Greater transparency on the part of the CEI
  • Dedication to fairness in campaign finance law
  • Systematic publication of voter education materials and thorough training of election staff
  • Fair enforcement when laws are violated


[1] International Election Observation Mission to Cote d’Ivoire: Final Report. The Carter Center. October 30, 2012, 1.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Republic of Cote d’Ivoire Direct Dialogue: Ouagadougou Political Agreement. The United Nations Security Council. March 13, 2007, 3. http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/Cote%20d'Ivoire%20S2007144.pdf.

[4] International Election Observation Mission to Cote d’Ivoire: Final Report, 4.

[5] Ibid., 33.

[6] Ibid., 30.

[7] Ibid., 38.

[8] Nossiter, Adam. “Standoff Set Up With 2 Ivory Coast Presidents.” The New York Times. December 3, 2010.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/world/africa/04ivory.html.

[9] “Cote d’Ivoire Presidential Election Marks Historic Milestone in Peace Process.” The Carter Center. November 1, 2010.  https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/cotedivoire-110210.html.

[10] Cook, Nicolas. “Cote d’Ivoire’s Post-Election Crisis.” Congressional Research Service. March 3, 2011, 3.   http://congressional.proquest.com.ezproxy.uky.edu/congressional/result/pqpresultpage.gispdfhitspanel.pdflink/$2fapp-bin$2fgis-congresearch$2fa$2fc$2f2$2f8$2fcrs-2011-fdt-0267_0001_from_1_to_50.pdf/entitlementkeys=1234%7Capp-gis%7Ccongresearch%7Ccrs-2011-fdt-0267.

[11] “Hundreds Killed as Battle for Ivory Coast Turns Streets into War Zones.” CNN. April 1, 2011.  http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/04/01/ivory.coast.unrest/.

[12] Straus, Scott. “’It’s Sheer Horror Here’: Patterns of Violence during the First Four Months of Cote d’Ivoire’s Post-Electoral Crisis.” African Affairs 110, no. 440 (2011): 481-489.  http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uky.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=51276c8e-b74a-443f-a99d-445034c6e31a%40sessionmgr4004&vid=1&hid=4210.

[13] “A New Displacement Crisis in West Africa.” UNHCR. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/cote-divoire-edge.html.

[14] “Cote d’Ivoire.” Freedom House. 2011. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2011/c-te-divoire.

[15] “The Carter Center Notes Peaceful Elections in a Fragile Political and Social Context.” The Carter Center. December 13, 2011. https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/cotedivoire-121411.html.

[16] James, John. “Low Turnout in Ivory Coast Presidential Elections.” BBC. December 11, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-16128831.

[17] Obama, Barack. “Notice: Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to the situation in or in Relation to Cote d’Ivoire.” The White House. February 4, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/04/notice-continuation-national-emergency-respect-situation-or-relation-c-t

[18] Mbaku, John Mukum. “African Elections in 2015: a Snapshot for Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, and Sudan.” Brookings Institute. 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/01/foresight-africa/african-elections-mbaku-FINAL.pdf?la=en

[19] “Ivory Coast’s Ouattara Re-elected by a Landslide.”  Al Jazeera. October 28, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/ivory-coast-ouattara-elected-president-151028045522661.html.

[20] Roberts, Tyson. “The Most Interesting thing about Cote d’Ivoire’s Election was that it Wasn’t Interesting.” The Washington Post. November 26, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/26/the-most-interesting-thing-about-cote-divoires-election-was-that-it-wasnt-interesting/.