ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Is President Laurent Gbagbo a dictator in all but name, clinging to power five years after his term in office expired? Or is he the man who brought peace and reunification to a country torn in two by civil war?
Ivory Coast's Gbagbo is often accused of being a despot, but he loudly proclaims to be the country's savior. Ivorians will finally have their chance to decide in the election on Sunday.
When Gbagbo was elected in 2000, it was the climax of a political fairytale. He embodied the fight against one-party rule first as a student agitator, then as the head of a clandestine opposition party. He was jailed, exiled and finally pardoned and allowed to run in the country's first openly contested election in 1990.
Ten years later, running against coup leader turned presidential candidate General Robert Guei, he took the country's supreme office riding a wave of anti-military sentiment and several days of violent street protest that left dozens dead.
But Gbagbo's time in office has been tumultuous, to say the least. The vote will be a referendum on whether Ivorians think Gbagbo has succeeded in holding things together despite staggering odds or whether he's the source of the country's rampant corruption and increasing poverty. Opinion is divided.
Two years into his presidency a failed coup split the country in two and a low-intensity civil war simmered for years, refereed by French troops who took up positions along a central buffer zone between the belligerent sides. Those French forces were transformed into a U.N. peacekeeping mission with a Security Council vote, though that didn't prevent them from opening fire on protesters in Abidjan in 2004, provoking an anti-French backlash that saw lynch mobs go door to door looking for white faces.
No French were killed but what was once the largest French expatriate community in the world was almost entirely evacuated in a matter of days.
Though the links with these gangs have never been proven, Gbagbo rode this wave of xenophobic fervor and encouraged patriots to defend the nation against foreigners.
Despite the flight of French businesses, Ivory Coast's economy continued to grow throughout the war, though poverty skyrocketed at the same time, with incomes dropping 15 percent since 1999, according to CIA statistics.
Ivory Coast, with 20 million people and a GDP of $35.8 billion, is the world's largest cocoa producer and its exports have run smoothly. Oil and gas development has continued unabated, but the benefits haven't trickled down to the population.
Much of this can be attributed to widespread and systematic corruption, says Christian Bouquet, professor of geography and specialist on Ivory Coast at the University of Bordeaux III in France.
“Corruption is difficult to measure, and it always existed in Ivory Coast,” he said. “But I think it's safe to say that it became generalized under Gbagbo, running into parts of society where it never existed before. Is it his fault? Well, he's done very little to fight it. He's been quick to blame everything on the war and political crisis.”
Ten years on, corruption appears to be the legacy of Gbagbo's time in power, visible on every street corner, whether it's a police officer running an impromptu roadblock who wants a little something for a coffee, or the tens of millions of dollars that go missing each year from the country's cocoa industry.
Students complain that they have pay their way through university entrance exams while parents bemoan the fact that public schools can only find a desk for their child if they're willing to buy one and bring it in.
“We're tired of being excluded not because of what we know, but because of how much money we have,” said Jean-Paul N'gura, a student from Bouake, in the country's north. “Under Gbagbo the system is broken. I'm voting [for opposition candidate Henri Konan] Bedie so that university becomes fair again.”
As the war simmered on into its fifth year, Gbagbo redeemed himself in many people's eyes. After both French and South African peace brokering failed and much of the international community gave up on the peace process, Gbagbo announced a surprise peace agreement following a secret meeting with the rebels face to face.
The Ouagadougou peace accords were signed in 2007 and were supposed to lead to new presidential elections within a year. Six delays later, and five years after his term in office expired, Gbagbo is finally facing the voters in what is being touted as the country's first truly free and fair elections.
“He's a man of courage,” said Germain Kouassi, an economics professor at the university of Abidjan. “When war broke out in 2002, Gbagbo was in Rome, but came home to face the insurrection. When Bedie heard the first shots in 1999, he picked up and ran away to France. Gbagbo brought the peace. That's what we need in a leader.”
Henri Konan Bedie is back, and running for the seat he inherited from Houphouet in 1993, but was taken from him in a military coup in six years later. He is campaigning under the colors of the PDCI — the former ruling party — hoping that the nostalgia for better times will convince people that he's the best candidate.
But Bedie's time in office left a bad taste in many people's mouths. He reversed course on his predecessor's open immigration policy and targeted foreigners when he proved unable to pull the country out of economic crisis. The restitution of farms to traditional Ivorian land owners opened a Pandora's box of racism, sectarian violence and even ethnic cleansing.
By all accounts, the election is Gbagbo's to lose. He is nearly 20 percent ahead of Bedie, according to a recent survey by by the French polling agency TNS Sofres. Bouquet says the polls are unscientific, and opposition camps are predicting an upset driven by voters dissatisfied with Gbagbo.
Indeed, Gbagbo's socialist-styled reforms have all been put on hold. Universal healthcare, free primary education, and cocoa sector reform that would guarantee farmers' decent prices are all on his platform this fall, despite having also been there in 2000.
Because of Ivory Coast's perceived corruption there are widespread concerns that vote rigging will affect the election. International observers from the European Union, the Carter Center and the West African Economic Union are vigilantly watching the election process.
Another worry is that the rebels, if they are unhappy with the results, will return to war, as they have not been disarmed.
With so much at stake, Ivorians are expecting a lot from the election.
“Gbagbo has had his time,” said Kamarate Mohammed, a cocoa farmer in the west of the country. “Ten years isn't 10 days, and we're still waiting. It's time for a change.”
Whether Gbagbo is reelected or not, the election will be a milestone that could mark the end of Ivory Coast's civil war.