Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara may stumble over his own resume as he tries to reunite a country shattered by civil war.
The former IMF official hails from the West African country’s Muslim north, has a father from Burkina Faso, and received French military backing to defeat rival Laurent Gbagbo — making him a poster-child for the main issues of ethnicity, religion and anti-colonial sentiment that have roiled the nation for more than a decade.
Forces loyal to Ouattara detained Gbagbo on Monday, ending a bloody four-month power struggle in the world’s top cocoa grower that killed more than 1,500 people, displaced more than 1 million and reopened the wounds of a 2002-03 civil war, Reuters reports.
The main question now is whether the 46 percent of Ivorians who voted for Gbagbo in the November election, including the armed militias who still roam the streets of the main city Abidjan, will accept his defeat.
“Ouattara’s background is symbolic of Ivory Coast’s divisions,” said Hannah Koep, of consultancy Control Risks in London. “While his international ties may help him to rebuild the economy, his background could make it harder for him to address the country’s domestic issues.”
Parts of Ivory Coast have long been prey to deep ethnic rivalries that fuelled feuding between local tribes and immigrant farmers from neighbouring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso, who settled in northern Ivory Coast and now form the backbone of the cocoa workforce.
The religious and tribal faultlines fuelled the 2002-03 civil war and mirror the divide that played out between Ouattara and Gbagbo, whose traditional power base is in the Christian south that includes Abidjan.
Before his ousting, Gbagbo rallied his supporters with fiery anti-foreigner and anti-French rhetoric, and accused Ouattara of being a Burkinabe and a patsy of the West and former colonial ruler France — accusations he may struggle to shake.
“Ouattara has to play this very carefully, to manage tensions at home and placate the domestic constituents of Gbagbo and so resolve not just the electoral dispute but also in effect a 10-year-long civil war,” said Mark Schroeder at political risk consultancy Stratfor.
NEW ERA OF HOPE
Ouattara, 69, served as prime minister under the country’s first post-independence president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, where he earned a reputation for good economic management. He later joined the International Monetary Fund and rose in the ranks.
“As an ex-IMF director for Africa, and a liberal, Ouattara is also exposed to sharp criticism from anti-globalisation militants,” said Lydie Boka at Strategico.
He was excluded from running for president in 2000 elections after coup leader Robert Guei tightened the rules to bar anyone whose parents were not both Ivorian.
Issues of citizenship, and rising frustrations between local tribes and immigrant farmers, later blew up into a northern rebel assault on Gbagbo in 2002 that was repelled, but divided the country in two.
The 2010 elections were intended to reunite the country’s rebel-held north and government-controlled south, but instead rekindled all-out conflict.
Ouattara won the election by 8 percentage points according to U.N.-certified results, but Gbagbo rejected the outcome, alleging fraud in Ouattara’s northern power base.
Rebels from the 2002-03 war rallied to Ouattara’s side and formed the bulk of his force, which swept south into Abidjan in March and received U.N. and French military support.
Both Ouattara and Gbagbo’s soldiers have been accused of atrocities during the fighting.
“I call on my fellow countrymen to abstain from all forms of reprisal and violence,” Ouattara said hours after Gbagbo’s capture, calling for a “new era of hope”.
Analysts said it will be important for Ouattara to follow through on a pledge to reconcile divisions, investigate human rights abuses, and include untainted officials from Gbagbo’s political party in government.
“Much harder will be overcoming the decade of xenophobic and Christian supremacist rhetoric that Gbagbo and his allies have brandished to marginalise the political opposition,” Anne Fruhauf, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group said.