Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amidst the Mob at Alassane Ouattara’s Election Kickoff Rally

Apologies for the two-week hiatus. I was away in rural Liberia for an amazing experience that will be documented shortly. But before that I need to wrap up my experience in Cote d’Ivoire. During my stay in Yopougon neighborhood and interviews in the same area, I befriended some of the leaders of the local headquarters of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, who asked if I wanted to meet the presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara. Unfortunately one opportunity was missed when I went north, but I was invited to the kickoff rally on the first official day of campaigning.

When I arrived with Cisse to the muddy, open area the size of two football fields, the crowd was already buzzing with energy. A crowd of youths ran through the streets chanting “Ado is the way!” (Alassane Dramane Ouattara takes the nickname “Ado”). We were able to maneuver our way into the VIP/journalist area quite easily with our connection and my skin color (Indeed, I never saw another non-black the entire day), and found some standing room within about 30 feet of the stage.

There were people on top of people. As far as the eye could see, there were people – on top and inside of buses, hanging on to old billboards, finding space on distant unfinished construction projects. I was wearing many people’s sweat. We arrived around 2:00 p.m. and Ouattara didn’t appear until after 6:00, during which time the crowd became increasingly crazy with anticipation like a little kid waiting for Christmas. As each of the prominent party members came on stage, I could feel people closing in on me. The fence behind me separating the masses from the VIP/journalist area bulged and looked like it could give way at any minute. People were forcing themselves over the fence, despite the efforts of security. (The amazing thing is that by all accounts, no one was drinking, which is interesting in that 1) this was raw enthusiasm and 2) I’d be afraid what might happen if there had been alcohol involved.)

My experience at election rallies is very limited, but the atmosphere, when Ouattara finally arrived, was pure electricity. Not a citizen of the country, even I had chills running down my back. You could sense this was a country ready to move on, enthused about what’s next. Some journalists insisted that I get up close to the presidential candidate for pictures, like they wanted me to show the world that Cote d’Ivoire is ready for change. Ami, one of the party staff I knew, texted me and told me to come sit in a section neighboring Ouattara’s platform. With all the commotion, I wasn’t to get any personal time with him, but when he did make his way for the main stage, I had the opportunity to shake his hand and wish him the best. Having played his part on stage, Ado retreated and left the stage to a band for an all-night concert. Cisse and I, likewise, moved to the outskirts of the rally area, before heading to a nearby bar for drinks to reflect.

All this comes back to my unanswered question: Does democracy promote growth in ethnically diverse countries? Research has shown good governance to have a positive, significant effect on growth. But as far as I can tell with a cursory view of the literature, whether “good governance” is a proxy for democracy is still open for debate. In some cases, some research found that political institutions such as dictatorships or democracies were not important, but rather political stability was.

(Note: The elections went off peacefully, with a voter turnout of 83%, one of the highest ever recorded for a multiparty election in Africa. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo received 38% of the votes and Alassane Ouattara received 32%. The runoff is slated for November 28.)

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