ABIDJAN (AFP) – Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara appealed to opponents to give up a campaign of civil disobedience during Saturday’s election as protests broke out in Abidjan and other towns over his contested bid for a third term.
At least 30 people have been killed in pre-election clashes since August, stoking fears of a return to the violence that left 3,000 dead in a crisis a decade ago when then president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.
A former IMF economist in power since 2010, Ouattara is facing off against veteran opposition leader Henri Konan Bedie in a bitter rivalry that has marked the West African country’s politics for decades.
Ouattara’s decision to run again angered opposition leaders who called for a boycott and civil disobedience over a third mandate they branded as an unconstitutional "electoral coup”.
"I appeal to those who launched this slogan for civil disobedience which has led to deaths: Stop. Ivory Coast needs peace,” Ouattara said after he voted in Abidjan. "I urge young people not to let themselves be manipulated.”
Police fired tear gas in Abidjan’s Blockhauss district to clear hundreds of youths who tried to disrupt voting, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
Protesters also blocked the main route to the north, near the central town of Djebonoua, 350 kilometers (220 miles) from the economic capital, local residents said.
Groups of youths set up makeshift barricades in some neighborhoods in and around Daoukro, stronghold of opposition leader Bedie.
In Bouadikro and Bongouanou, a stronghold of another opposition leader, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, north of Abidjan, polling stations had not opened, witnesses said.
Roadblocks were erected between the towns, and young protesters were warning "No vote here”, witnesses said.
More than 35,000 police and security force officials have been mobilized to secure the election.
Polls were due to close at 1800 GMT, though it is not clear when the results will be released. Electoral authorities by law have up to five days to announce the results.
The ballot in French-speaking West Africa’s economic powerhouse is a crunch test in a region where Nigeria faces widespread social protests, Mali is emerging from a coup and violence wracks the Sahel.
Ouattara, 78, was supposed to step aside after his second term to make way for a younger generation, but the sudden death of his chosen successor led to a change in plan.
The Ivorian leader says a constitutional court ruling approved his third term, allowing him to bypass two-term presidential limits after a 2016 legal reform.
His supporters expect a strong win, touting his record in bringing infrastructure projects, economic growth and stability to the world’s top cocoa producer after a decade of instability.