Waiting for election results can be thrilling. Watching the red and blue states creep across the map of the United States is a political junkie's idea of a great night. But here in Ivory Coast, the wait can be excruciating -- not to mention risky -- in the tense post civil-war atmosphere that regularly descends into street violence.
And so it was on Tuesday, two days after a historic run-off vote for president that would determine whether sitting President Laurent Gbagbo will be elected to a second five-year term (though his first term lasted ten years) or if his opponent Alassane Ouattara, the man who embodies the struggle of the disenfranchised, mainly Muslim northern population, will take over the country's highest office.
The electoral commission was supposed to only have 72 hours to declare a winner, and we were already approaching the end of the second day with only a tiny handful of results, all cast by Ivorians living abroad. Mr. Gbagbo's camp was contesting the results of the election in three Ouattara strongholds in the north – even before the vote counts were made public.
They claimed voter intimidation, violence, and fraud. An Interior Ministry official read a list of dozens of alleged irregularities on state television, running the gamut from angry crowds blocking Gbagbo supporters from voting to armed men making off with the ballot boxes.
International observers say vote was fair
Despite the fact that the United Nations and the European Union observer groups had signed off on the election, state TV repeatedly ran statements by dodgy African observer missions proclaiming that the “election didn't respect international norms.”
The stage was being set to discredit the run-off before its results were even made final. And the final set piece was about to play out in front of our eyes.
Local and international journalists gathered before the table where the results were to be read, jostling for position.
A crisply dressed Bamba Yacouba, the spokesman for the electoral commission known across the country as the man who reads out the vote counts in an endless string of numbers on television, walked purposefully towards the orange backdrop, his face expressionless. He was flanked by two other men whom I've never seen before.
Moment of drama
As Yacouba took his place and shuffled his papers, they exchanged glances and began.
“This is an electoral hold up!” they yelled. “You can't listen to these results, they haven't been approved by the commission! He is acting alone, we cannot stand for this!” They shouted.
The photographers snapped away dutifully, the cameras rolled and us print journalists couldn't believe the scene that was unfolding before us.
“Who are you guys?” one local journalist asked. The men identified themselves as electoral commissioners who don't want the results read on live television. It later turned out that they were members of Gbagbo's FPI party who also have posts on the electoral commission.
Mr. Yacouba looked up at them as if to ask them whether they were done their show of protest and cleared his throat. “You've had your turn,” he said. “Now let me have mine.”
One of the two then decided that he was not done and snatched the printed results from Yacouba's hands, ripping them up and throwing them down on the ground.
Snap. Snap. Flash. Flash. Scribble. Scribble. Yacouba calmly – almost too calmly – stated that the results from several regions are ready, they've been signed off on by the entire commission and that he'd be happy to present them as soon as he could get another print out.
Retreating back inside, the photographers reviewed their shots on the backs of their cameras and the journalists checked with each other to see whether they actually heard what was said correctly.
In come the soldiers
Yacouba never came back. Instead a dozen blue fatigued, red-bereted soldiers emerged and politely asked the gathered journalists to leave.
“That'll be all for tonight,” they said.
The scene would accompany the other pieces on state television brilliantly. The president's party citing violence. The “observers” saying the election wasn't free and fair. And now the electoral commissioners refusing to have results announced. Everything is being done, it seems, to discredit this election before we even know who came out on top.
The next day, the 72-hour deadline came and went and while the streets were quiet because of the nation-wide curfew, they had been that way all day.
People in Ivory Coast have already lived through a coup d'etat and a civil war. Some habits are hard to break.