Elections in Côte d’Ivoire: An Interview with Georges Tadonki

Against all odds, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has just concluded one of the most successful presidential elections in recent African history, bringing a country which has teetered on the edge of crisis for more than a decade a step closer to implementing a democratically elected civilian government.  The process has been described as “the most transparent and inclusive election in Cote d’Ivoire’s history and a key step towards a normalized political environment,” and enthusiastically hailed by voices as diverse as former President of Ghana John Kufuor, among others.

While although concerns remain over the counting of the votes and the observation of results by all parties, this is still a matter which deserves significant attention as a leading model for the technical implementation of democratic process for a number of developing nations, from which lessons can be drawn to avoid the stalemate situation which has unfolded in Guinea.  To learn more about how this incredibly complex election became a reality, we called up United Nations official Georges Tadonki* for a short interview.

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Q:  What has been your position in the Côte d’Ivoire elections process?

I serve as a director to the United Nations Office for Project and Service (UNOPS), which in providing crisis transition assistance to Côte d’Ivoire, placed me under the direction of Deputy Sec. Gen. Young-jin Choi of Korea, who oversees the UN mission to the country.  My job was to advise Mr. Choi on operational and logistical matters.

Q:  And how did your offices become involved in the election?

Well, to discuss how the UN came to be involved in Côte d’Ivoire requires an understanding of the country’s turbulent history – a very tragic crisis which brought down one of the most modern and admired financial and business centers of West Africa, Abdijan, which at one point had its economic development on par with South Korea.

Over the past ten years since the interruption of democracy, Côte d’Ivoire has attempted to hold elections no less than six different times – each time proved to be an abject failure due to political tensions and poor organization.  The result was a total lack of trust between all the political factions, and a lack of grounds for an agreement to organize the process.

What were some of the principle challenges to organizing the Côte d’Ivoire elections?

First of all, there was very little time for us to accomplish some tremendously complex and difficult tasks.  When a political agreements was finally reached  to hold the elections in 2010, various groups had been approached to act as a logistical liaison and adviser on the election, including Germany, but these groups were forced to decline participation given the complications. 

With just four weeks to go before the election date, my offices were approached with the task of technical assistance to prepare for the vote, leaving us with very little time to mobilize and deliver materials, books, cards, ballots, packages, financial resources and related infrastructure to more than 10,000 voting districts and 20,037 polling stations across a vast and difficult geography.  Our offices were successful in mobilizing all the necessary experts and observers, some $12 million in resources, including the renting of about 2,000 four-wheel drive cars, about 600 motorcycles, several boatsand small watercraft for the coast and principal rivers, and even helicopters to reach remote areas of the country.

How has the election been received?

According to all international observers, diplomatic missions, andthe UN, the election was a historical success, and from an organizationalpoint of view, the level of participation was a mark of popular approval.  More than 80% of the population of some 20 million people came out to vote. The atmosphere both before and during the election has been calm and without incident. From 31 Octoberand 2 November, my team managed to transport the ballots and votingreports back from the stations to the Independent Electoral Commission,and releasing results gradually.

What made this election possible?  How has Côte d’Ivoire succeeded in ways that some other West African nations have failed?

Well, that is a complicated question, and I hesitate to say that any categorical answer could exist.  For Côte d’Ivoire, there were several factors running in its favor.  First, there was a considerable level of political maturity among the populace.  The parties, candidates, and public appear to have understood that moving forward with the elections and respecting the results comes before partisan politics of any kind.  After years of poverty caused by the political crisis, with too many jobs lost, the people recognize the problem and what needs to be done.

Secondly, there is of course the impact of a tremendous UN presence there, with 8,000 peacekeeping troops creating the stability necessary for political compromise.  It would be difficult to imagine the success of this elections implementation model without the positive presence of the UN and all the hard work of its members.

At this point I think it’s important that the outstanding service performed by Deputy Sec. Gen. Choi is recognized.  As for my role in this process, I am grateful for the professional support provided by Choi and his staff, and I can let you know that everyone on our team held him in the highest regard.  He was able to put all the right people in the right places, making it possible to deliver high quality assistance to the people of Côte d’Ivoire to make this election possible.

Lastly, I think, that this successful election was the result of the strength of the UN mission and willingness to not play politics with the local parties, factions, leaders, and personalities.  When difficult things had to be said, the mission did not hesitate to be firm.  Over the 12 years I have been working with the United Nations in Africa, I have observed quite a number of elections and interaction over democratic matters.  Compared with my terrible experience in Zimbabwe, where thousands have died as a result of a political choice, the rigid adherence to ethics and principles on behalf of this team are a reason for its success.

Do you believe the success of this mission can be replicated in other crisis areas of the world?

Yes, in fact, in my opinion this operation in Côte d’Ivoire represents a model of what the United Nations should be doing across Africa to help countries in crisis, and a model of how the international community can support democracy.  The mission was able to provide the ideal combination of technical assistance and humanitarian assistance, without pandering to anyone’s intimidation.  I first joined the UN because of my belief in this kind of humanity, and my belief that good leadership can emphasize these principles.  But it wasn’t until this experience, where I was able to meet with and work with the next generation of Ivorians, to work with the esteemed Mr. Choi, that I began to felt that this dream can be possible.

All we can do now is hope that this brief moment of success can sustain itself for a better future for this promising country, and hope that the international community as a whole can lend the necessary support to keep Côte d’Ivoire and other crisis countries from falling back into the viscious cycle of poverty and political instability.

*Disclaimer:  Amsterdam & Peroff represent Tadonki in a legal matter relating to his alleged mistreatment while working in Zimbabwe.  The case, which has received significant press coverage, is wholly unrelated to the topic of this interview.