President Alassane Ouattara's inauguration is underway. It marks the end of a bitter 6-month struggle that has threatened to plunge Ivory Coast back into civil war. In the city of Abidjan, residents hope it will also mark the start of a new era.
, special correspondent in Abidjan
Ivory Coast's president elect, Alassane Ouattara, will be inaugurated Saturday after a six-month battle with his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara was elected with 54.1 per cent of votes cast in a presidential run-off last November. But his rise to the presidency was blocked by his rival Gbagbo, who stubbornly refused to admit defeat after ten years in power. The battle between the two sides, which embroiled UN and French forces and saw almost 3,000 people killed, finally ended on April 11 with the arrest of Gbagbo. Ouattara, 69, took power the same day.
Making Abidjan secure again: a major challenge
Several foreign leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy gathered for the inauguration ceremony in the political capital, Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of the "father of the nation" and long-serving president Houphouët-Boigny, who died in 1993.
The ceremonial capital has undergone a facelift in the recent days and has been festooned with the national colours, while the venue, the Houphouet-Boigny Foundation, is also under tight security provided by the army and UN peacekeepers.
Meanwhile in Abidjan, the country's largest city and its business capital, local inhabitants are still dressing their wounds from the bloody battle that ended on their doorstep last month.
Turning a page
Abidjan's commercial district of Plateau was one of the last pro-Gbagbo districts to fall to Ouattara's forces. It was only a month ago, at the height of the fighting, that corpses could be seen strewn by the wayside.
Today shops and banks have reopened, suited businessmen hail taxis, and the sound of impatient horns has returned. The locals here are hoping that Ouattara's inauguration will "turn a page" and bring prosperity back to the neighbourhood. But the scars of civil war are everywhere to be seen, not least on the neighbourhood's cherished glass skyscrapers, which are still dotted with gaping holes where they were hit during the conflict.
Desolate but hopeful
Over in Yopougon, in eastern Abidjan, things are also getting back to normal, albeit slowly. Known as Abidjan's party district before the election, this was where people went out to restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
By April, it had become Gbagbo's only remaining bastion, the final pocket of resistance defying Ouattara's Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI). Even after Gbagbo's arrest in the neighbouring district of Cocody, his militiamen in Yopougon carried on the fight. For them, it had become a matter of survival, not of political allegiance.
Today, desolate petrol stations dot the neighbourhood, their pumps ripped out of the ground and the kiosks ransacked. Shops and stalls lie empty, some of them burnt down. Mohamed, who works at a joinery specialising in aluminium frames, pensively works through the losses the company suffered during what he meekly describes as "the crisis". His employers had 150,000 euros worth of equipment stolen. But Mohamed, who left his native Nigeria for Ivory Coast, once West Africa's economic powerhouse, is accepting of the situation. "It was war, and there are always people who profit from war," he says. His main concern is that the business doesn't fold. "Even without the machines, we keep on working. We keep our spirits up because we know things could have been worse. Others lost their lives."
Back in the bars, but not after nightfall
Rated 85% secure today by the FRCI, the Yopougon district, which is home to around a million people, is slowly experiencing a return to normal. At a busy market beside the Siporex crossroads, stall owners are laying out books, jewellery, pirated DVDs, mobile phones -- as well as the obligatory inauguration T-shirts of Alassane Ouattara and his wife, Dominique.
From behind his mobile phone stall, Mickaël and his co-workers are happy to be back at work, united despite their differing political opinions. "We don't all support the same party," he says. "We even have our token bété [person of the same ethnicity as Gbagbo]. But we all get along."
Custom is picking up in the bars too, but not late into the night like it used to. Bars tend to empty out at around 7 or 8 pm, instead of 2 in the morning, like before, Mickaël explains. "There are still a lot of firearms in the city," says Koffi, another stall owner. "People haven't got their confidence back when it comes to nightfall," his neighbour adds.
These young stall owners will set up a TV at the market on Saturday, so they can watch the inauguration. "It's a symbolic event for a united Ivory Coast," says Koffi.
Fingers crossed, it will mark the end of the civil war.