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Ivory Coast's internationally recognised leader Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan on Jan. 17, 2011.
The Ivory Coast has been gripped in a fierce battle for power since November elections intended to reunite the country ended in a stalemate.
The Independent Electoral Commission of Ivory Coast declared opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara the winner with 54.1 percent of the vote, compared to 45.9 percent for incumbent Laurent Gbagbo. But despite the U.N. and international observers declaring the election free and fair, the Constitutional Council, run by a Gbagbo ally, alleged massive fraud by Ouattara’s camp and declared Gbagbo the winner of the election on Dec. 3.
Since then the West African country has been stuck in limbo – with the two rivals both claiming the presidency. The economy has come to a virtual halt and violence has forced up to 1 million people to flee the commercial capital Abidjan.
So who is Ouattara, the internationally recognized president who will likely assume power when Gbagbo finally exits?
Ouattara, 69, is a former prime minister, banker and top economist at the International Monetary Fund. A Muslim born in Dimborko, in the north of Ivory Coast his years studying and working abroad have stymied his political ambitions at home, with questions surrounding his nationality constantly dogging him and twice preventing him from running for president.
Educated in the United States, Ouattara received a bachelor’s of science degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia and both a master’s and Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania. During the 1970s and 80s he rose through the ranks working as an economist at both the IMF and the Central Bank of West African States. He is married to a French woman, Dominique Folloroux-Ouattara.
President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s founding father who led the country from independence from France on Aug. 7, 1960 until his death, tapped Ouattara to be prime minister in 1990. In an effort to reign in the country’s finances, he oversaw unpopular government cuts in an effort to balance the country’s budget.
Ouattara tried to run for president in 1995 – but was denied the chance based on a new electoral rule – which many believe was implemented specifically to prevent him from running. The rule barred candidates if either of their parents were of a foreign nationality and if they had not lived in Ivory Coast during the preceding five years. Hailing from the north of the country, there were varying accusations that his mother (and at other times, his father) was from neighboring Burkina Faso – disqualifying him from running for president.
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Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara attends a ceremony in a hotel in Abidjan on Dec. 4, 2010.
For decades Ivory Coast was a haven for migrant workers who came from neighboring countries like Mail and Burkina Faso to work on the coffee and cocoa plantations. But Bedie stirred-up a campaign of xenophobia called “Ivoirité,” judging who was considered truly Ivorian based on their ethnic heritage; mostly Christian Southerners were considered Ivorian, while northern Muslims were “foreigners.”
The argument over Ouattara’s nationality came to represent the political aspirations of all north Muslims and migrant workers who felt increasingly marginalized.
In 2000 Ouattara tried to run for president again – and was again denied based on questions surrounding his nationality. Laurent Gbagbo won the 2000 election – and refused Ouattara’s calls for a new poll. The controversy continued to divide the country along religious and ethnic lines, finally coming to a head when the country was split by civil war in 2002.
Gbagbo’s term was up in 2005, but he continually postponed elections, blaming logistical problems and debates over who was eligible to vote based on the question of who was and who was not considered “truly Ivorian.”
Ouattara was finally allowed to stand as a candidate in the 2010 presidential election that was meant to reunite the broken country.
Ouattara has generally stayed out of the fray of fighting – but questions surrounding the massacre of an estimated 800 people in the Western town of Duekoue, allegedly at the hands of some of his supporters – may tarnish his reputation.
But the international community has good reason to believe that Ouattara taking the helm in Ivory Coast is a positive development, according to John Campbell, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for African Policy Studies.
“There are a couple of points that I think are encouraging. The first is – he actually won the election. That gives him a legitimacy that for example Gbagbo didn’t have. Secondly in the view of the international community he won the election. So he has a particular kind of legitimacy,” Campbell said, the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. “Further he certainly has the technical expertise to manage an economy.”
“I may be looking at things through rose tinted glasses, but the drama in Ivory Coast has been so tragic for so long … This time I think we have grounds for hope. That’s why right now, I’m upbeat.”