ABIDJAN – Security forces in Ivory Coast dispersed opposition supporters with tear gas while protesters erected barricades in the streets Tuesday after President Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner of a controversial third term.
The mounting unrest came as authorities loyal to Ouattara's government appeared to be stepping up their surveillance of top opposition leaders Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Henri Konan Bedie, who vowed to set up their own transitional government after denouncing Saturday's vote.
Police showed up Tuesday afternoon as international journalists gathered for a press conference with members of the opposition. After ordering people to leave the scene, forces fired tear gas in the surrounding streets.
The two opposition leaders had boycotted Saturday's presidential election in a bid to discredit the vote. On Monday, they discounted Ouattara's victory, saying his mandate to lead Ivory Coast had expired.
There have been widespread fears of post-election violence erupting in Ivory Coast, where more than 3,000 people were killed following a disputed vote a decade ago.
Opposition leaders said more than 30 people already have died in violence linked to Saturday's election. On Monday night, they continued a call for civil disobedience and told supporters “to remain mobilized until the final victory.”
The U.N. refugee agency reported that as of Tuesday, more than 3,200 Ivorians fearing post-electoral violence had fled to Liberia, Ghana and Togo.
“I fear for the future. What's the point of giving the results of this election when practically all observers question the credibility? Can the reelection of a contested candidate heal the wounds of 2010? ” Mikael Koffi, a resident of the city of Abidjan, said Tuesday.
“Where are we going with the country so divided that the opposition does not recognize the results of the election on one side, and the ruling party does not want to make concessions on the other?” he said.
Ivory Coast's electoral commission reported Tuesday that voter turnout on Saturday was 53.9%, though the opposition has maintained only 10% of Ivorian voters took part.
Victory celebrations appeared muted, with only small crowds gathering in the pro-Ouattara neighborhoods of Abidjan. By late afternoon, young men had thrown wooden tables and other barricades into the streets of Abidjan's posh Cocody neighborhood as security forces stepped up their presence in the area because of the opposition meeting nearby.
Ouattara, who received some 94.3% percent of the vote, had been expected to easily win the election after the leading opposition figures called on their supporters to stay home. According to official results released Tuesday, N’Guessan and Bediethey received 0.99% and 1.66% of the vote, respectively. The only opposition candidate who still took part, Kouadio Konan Bertin, won 1.99% of the votes cast, the electoral commission said.
Critics, though, say Ouattara and his allies shaped the presidential race to their advantage long before Election Day. Forty of the 44 potential candidates were disqualified from running, including former Prime Minister Guillaume Soro and ex-President Laurent Gbagbo.
Voter Awa Coulibaly said she was happy about the Quattara's reelection, but she said the victory would have been better had his opponents taken part in the process.
“I urge President Alassane Ouattara to always reach out to the opposition by forming an open government,” Coulibaly said while shopping at a market in Abidjan. “Ivory Coast must definitively turn the page on these electoral crises.”
Ouattara has been in power for nearly a decade. He initially said he would not run again this year but changed his mind after his party's candidate died suddenly in July. He maintains that the country's two-term limit for presidents does not apply to him because of a constitutional referendum passed in 2016.
The 78-year-old president, who is popular with international donors, has said he was motivated to run again because of his love for his country. He also has said it's unlikely he would seek re-election again in 2025.
The opposition first tried to get Ouattara disqualified from seeking a third term, but the legal effort failed. The opposition coalition signaled Monday that it would go ahead and form a transitional government despite the official results showing Ouattara headed toward victory.
Opposition leaders insisted that Ouattara's mandate to lead Ivory Coast had ended and promised they would now start working on organizing “a fair, transparent and inclusive presidential election.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how the opposition could proceed with that plan given that the country’s electoral commissions are heavily weighted with Ouattara supporters, as is the constitutional council that has responsibility for certifying official results from Saturday’s election.
International election observers said Monday that “a significant portion of the population did not vote," compared to previous presidential elections.
“These problems threaten public acceptance of the results and the country’s cohesion,” said a statement released by the observer mission carried out by The Carter Center and Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.
Ouattara was the internationally recognized winner of a disputed 2010 election in which then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat. Both men held their own inauguration ceremonies, and the standoff persisted for months until pro-Ouattara forces captured Gbagbo from his underground bunker.
Gbagbo was later acquitted of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, although prosecutors are appealing and he remains in Belgium. In the years since, critics say Ouattara's government has failed to bring about national reconciliation, concentrating prosecutions on the crimes committed by Gbagbo loyalists.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.