In the lead-up to Sunday’s landmark presidential poll in Ivory Coast, Daouda "His Majesty" Coulibaly has been blogging on the campaign trail, using wit to bind a divided nation.
A shopping mall cafeteria is a strange place for an aristocratic meeting. But right here, in the upscale Deux Plateaux neighbourhood of Abidjan, economic capital of Ivory Coast, is where Coulibaly had established his workplace. A battered laptop with several keys missing, two incessantly ringing cell phones, and a “domino” – a little black box that provides Wifi access – sit on a high table in the cafeteria. These are Coulibaly’s tools of the trade.
For this 29-year-old member of Ivory Coast’s exclusive "hyper-connected" club, the camera is his weapon of choice. He uses it to regularly feed his blog, launch debates on Facebook and post his signature videos on YouTube. His latest clip is a four-minute audio-visual (in French) in which he castigates, alone before the camera, the unrealistic promises politicians make on the campaign trail.
Ivory Coast goes to the polls on Sunday in the first presidential election since a civil war sparked by the 2010 vote. The ensuing post-electoral conflict left around 3,000 people dead as then president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down despite the UN, the EU, the US and other African countries recognising challenger Alassane Ouattara as the winner.
Ouattara was sworn in on April 11, 2011, and Gbagbo was seized by Ouattara’s fighters – backed by French and UN forces – from his refuge in a bunker under the presidential palace.
He awaits trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
New roads, malls, hotels in a fractured nation
Over the past four years, Ouattara has presided over the West African economic powerhouse, boosting growth in the world’s largest cocoa producer to more than twice Africa’s average with the economy expanding around 9 percent annually since 2012.
Ouattara is expected to ride the economic boom that has seen new roads, malls and luxury hotels sprout in Abidjan. But many Ivorians complain that the recovery has left them behind and Ouattara’s critics claim the former IMF economist has failed to unite his still-fractured nation.
In the days leading up to Sunday’s poll, Coulibaly’s video clips, with their satirical tone, serve as a powerful means to overcome these divisions. While his humour is biting, he’s careful not to feed the hatred that has plunged his country into civil war in the past.
"We will not dwell on the old quarrels. Ivorians must move on, our country has already paid too high a price," he says. "My goal is to raise awareness via the tools that young people use."
From tax department to the Ivorian blogosphere
A native of Bouake, the largest city in central Ivory Coast, Coulibaly is not the obvious choice for an online journalist.
"My parents wanted me to do accounting. I got my degree and started working at the tax department in Abidjan, but ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a journalist. Finally one day, I enrolled for a training course on writing for the web. That’s how I got started. "
By his own admission, his debut on the Internet in 2010 was not a grand success. Back then, Ivory Coast had barely emerged from a protracted political and military crisis only to plunge anew in a bloody standoff between Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters.
"I started with a very active blog, too politicised,” he explains. “But in any case, at that time, only my family who read what I wrote," he adds with a laugh.
After Ouattara came to power, Coulibaly hung up his partisan political boots for a stab at celebrity journalism.
"I launched a blog called 'Abidjan Gossip' that talked about fashion, celebrities, footballers," he recalls with a grin.
Meanwhile, between two posts on star Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba, the young writer was approached by RNW, a Dutch community radio station that regularly covers international justice issues.
"It was while meeting victims of the post-electoral crisis that I got to really understand Ivory Coast. During a mission in Duékoué [a western Ivorian city that was the site of a 2011 massacre], I met a woman whose husband was shot by supporters of one of the candidates disputing the election. I realised that the crisis had wronged all of Ivorian society. After that, I sat back and thought we have to rise above clan divisions."
From beauty contests to political coverage
In 2012, the online journalist went back to where he started, this time as Daouda "His Majesty" Coulibaly. In his new blog, "The voice for the voiceless," he neglected the Miss Ivory Coast contest to concentrate on the socio-political life of his country with the intention of shaking up the Ivorian media landscape.
"Journalists here love everything related to the institutional reporting and only follow politicians,” he explains. “We need to hear and see something else."
In his posts, "King David," as his grandmother calls him, typically evokes the daily life of students or closely examines the visit of a French minister in Abidjan. But in a country with entrenched antagonisms, taking any stance of policy is interpreted as proselytism.
"My family says that at best I'm a polemicist, at worst, I'm suicidal. I just have to speak on a subject to be accused of belonging to this or that camp,” he observes.
Comedy for the camera
Anxious to stimulate debate rather than sow discord, Coulibaly has, since the beginning of the year, launched his YouTube channel, where he presents his news in a lighter vein. His model is French journalist Yann Barthes -- sometimes known as France’s Jon Stewart -- who anchors the show, Le Petit Journal, which has been likened to the Daily Show.
"Every time I do a TV spot, I think how would he do it? I'm trying to learn to do comedy for the camera. When you do humor, you're better understood and people are less riled up.”
Despite a distrust in politics, Coulibaly never denigrates policy or political issues. On Sunday, Election Day, "His Majesty" will tour the polling stations across Abidjan to provide real-time coverage of the voting process. Armed with his phone, he plans to be a witness to any irregularities or fraud attempts that could taint the election.
"I will be like an independent observer with a smartphone,” he claims. “My goal is to minimise a crisis and prevent a repeat of the 2010-2011 disaster. I do not pretend to be influential but if I encourage young people to move towards peace, it will be a success."
This article was translated from the original in French.
Date created : 2015-10-24