Spilling out the front door of the fancy Golf Hotel on Thursday, crowds jumped for joy and cried the name Alassane Ouattara, the man who only seconds before had been proclaimed the winner of Ivory Coast's presidential election.
But their celebration was short lived. Today, Constitutional Council President Paul Yao N'Dre named incumbent Laurent Gbagbo winner of presidential elections, overruling provisional results announced the day before by the Electoral Commission.
The announcement heightens tensions in the violence-plagued nation, which has seen at least four deaths in post-election violence since Sunday.
Mr. Yao N'Dre said the Constitutional Council had annulled results in seven regions in the northern half of the country, which reportedly gave Mr. Gbagbo a majority of 51.45 percent against 48.55 for Mr. Ouattara.
Celebration short lived
Yao N'Dre, a loyalist of the president's ruling party, ruled invalid the earlier provisional results from the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI), which declared Thursday that Ouattara defeated Gbagbo 54 percent to 46 percent.
It was a surprise announcement from the CEI made far from the commission's headquarters and with no advance notice, as if to try to make it official before President Gbagbo could stop it. Word spread quickly from the Golf Hotel, first with the help of giant loudspeakers on the hotel lawn, then via text message and phone call.
Within minutes, people in the Muslim-majority north of the country – long excluded and accused of not being real Ivorians – descended into the streets to celebrate that one of their own was finally elected head of state. Many observers compared the moment to how many African Americans viewed the election of President Obama.
Constitutional Council rejects Electoral Commission
As the nightly curfew forced the revelers indoors, state television didn't report the opposition candidate's victory and instead opted to invite the president of the Constitutional Council on air to explain why he, and only he, could proclaim the results of the election.
“The CEI had three days to announce provisional results,” council president Paul Yao N'Dre said on the television broadcast. “This is a constitutional deadline, an imperative deadline,” that expired 72 hours after polls closed, or at midnight the previous night, he said.
“The CEI is no longer competent to give results,” said Mr. N'Dre. “Only the Constitutional Council can announce the results of this election.”
N'Dre is a loyalist to the ruling party of Gbagbo, who will evidently not be conceding victory anytime soon.
But Ouattara's win came as little surprise to many insiders – election results showing his victory had been quietly circulating for days.
The peace process that had put an end to a 2002-2004 civil war and set the stage for this election stipulated that all local polling results had to be sent to the political parties, several foreign embassies, and the head of the United Nations mission in the country in addition to the Electoral Commission, charged with declaring the results. This way, the thinking went, no one could doctor the numbers and verification would be easy.
Yet Gbagbo's camp seems to have found a way around this framework, via a concerted campaign to invalidate results from Ouattara strongholds in the north.
Not three hours after the polls closed on Nov. 28, Pascal Affi N'Guessan, a spokesman for Gbagbo's campaign, called into question the results from three regions in the north where Ouattara had received more than 85 percent of the votes in the first round. He said these regions should be thrown out because of violence, voter intimidation, and fraud.
However, the European Union and United Nations approved the results. While both organizations noted isolated incidents of violence leading to at least three deaths, the EU and UN nevertheless certified the vote as free and fair.
A campaign to reject the poll
Yet this is not the message Ivorians got from state TV. Instead, these reports were replaced by unknown African observer missions that denounced irregularities in the same northern regions that Mr. N'Guessan had cited, and claimed that these problems were so grave as to invalidate the entire election.
Teams of local reporters were dispatched to the north and came back with footage of the injured in hospital and the grieving families of the deceased.
The coup de grâce came when electoral commissioners hailing from Gbagbo's party physically prevented the first provisional results from being announced, ripping the sheets from the spokesman's hands in front of the rolling cameras.
Gbagbo's supporters were forced to reject results from a fourth region several days later, presumably after it became evident that Gbagbo still wouldn't win with the original three regions left out.
As night fell Thursday and statements were read on the nightly news sealing the country's borders and blocking all foreign radio and TV, it became clear that the election was far from won.