ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The head of Ivory Coast's electoral commission on Thursday declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the West African country's contested presidential election in comments that were not broadcast on state TV, before ruling party loyalists called the announcement an 'attempted coup' and took to the airwaves to denounce them as unofficial.
Election commission chief Youssouf Bakayoko said Ouattara had won with 54.1 percent of the vote, compared to 45.9 percent for incumbent Laurent Gbagbo after days of backroom wrangling during which the ruling party had physically prevented other commission members from announcing the outcome of the vote. Bakayoko left the commission's headquarters unannounced and slipped into the fancy Golf Hotel, where he made the announcement.
The hotel then replayed his declaration on the large speakers on the hotel's lawn, blasting the news as crowds gathered and opposition supporters began running through the streets in celebration.
The race is far from over because the victory must be validated by the country's constitutional council, which is led by ruling party loyalist Paul Yao N'Dre. N'Dre appeared on state-controlled television where he said that the electoral body's results were not valid because the commission had missed a constitutionally mandated midnight deadline on Wednesday.
"Only the constitutional council is qualified to give the results of this election," he said in the broadcast. "There are some foreign TV channels amusing themselves giving results. Ivoirians should consider these results null and void."
Soon after two separate decrees read on state TV announced that all foreign radio and TV broadcasts are being banned indefinitely and that the country's air, land and maritime borders had been closed.
The development heightens uncertainty and casts a shadow over the country's first election in 10 years which was meant to restore stability after political infighting plunged it into civil war in 2002. The international community scrambled to appease the situation, with the White House releasing a strongly-worded statement asking the parties to accept the election commission's results.
"Those provisional results have declared Alassane Ouattara the winner over incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo," the statement released late Thursday said. "Credible, accredited electoral observers have characterized the balloting as free and fair, and no party should be allowed to obstruct further the electoral process."
France's government on Thursday night issued a warning telling French citizens to avoid Ivory Coast, and advising those already in the country to obey a curfew in effect through Sunday. Air France canceled its flights Thursday and Friday to Ivory Coast.
The conflict officially ended in 2003, but the country was severed in two, with a government-controlled south led by Gbagbo and the north, where Ouattara comes from, in rebel hands.
The continuous delay of the election by Gbagbo whose term expired in 2005 and who claimed the election was impossible due to the war, destroyed the economy of the world's top cocoa producer, sending foreign investors packing, emptying out what was once one of Africa's chicest destinations sporting skyscrapers, gourmet restaurants and lagoon-facing boulevards.
Reached by telephone Thursday, one of Gbagbo's senior advisers, Richard Assamoa, called the release of results "an attempted coup d'etat."
Supporters of Gbagbo had prevented the election commission from announcing the outcome from Sunday's runoff, saying tallies from at least four of the country's 19 regions should be canceled because of irregularities. When a spokesman for the commission attempted to hold a press conference to announce partial results, officials loyal to Gbagbo stepped in front of the cameras and ripped the results out of his hand, blocking him from reading them.
In a press conference immediately after the announcement of his victory, the 68-year-old Ouattara called on his opponent to respect the outcome.
"I remind my brother Laurent Gbagbo of our mutual engagement to respect the results proclaimed by the independent electoral commission," he said. "I'm proud of my country which has resolutely chosen democracy today and I hope this leads to a durable peace in Ivory Coast."
Authorities said Thursday that police responding to a call at one of Ouattara's offices had killed four people after being fired upon. The opposition coalition denied any weapons were on the premises and said the attackers fired first.
If Ouattara remains the victor of the race, he will become the first Muslim president in this nation whose rulers have always been Christian and whose first president built a basilica considered to be the largest in the world. A former World Bank economist, Ouattara became the icon of Ivory Coast's downtrodden immigrant community in a nation that became a magnet in the region because of its prosperity, and drew in tens of thousands of laborers from dirt-poor Burkina Faso to the north. Ouattara, born in the north, had been prevented from running in previous elections after accusations that he was not really Ivoirian, and that he was of Burkinabe origin.