ABIDJAN: Ivory Coast marked 50 years of independence Saturday with a parade presided over by President Laurent Gbagbo, as the divided west African nation looked ahead to long-delayed polls due in October.
The former French colony held a simple call to arms and a march-past by Ivorian forces outside the presidency in Abidjan, while the flags of 16 other African nations which won independence after 1960 were flown in solidarity.
Gbagbo used the event to hail an announcement by Ivorian electoral authorities on Thursday that a presidential vote would finally take place on October 31 — five years after the expiry of his own mandate.
"We absolutely wanted to see the electoral horizon clearly before the August 7 celebrations," he said, adding that he believed the date set for the ballot was realistic and that there would be no unrest.
Elections have been postponed six times since Gbagbo’s mandate ran out in 2005 and rights groups had demanded that the date for the polls be set before this weekend’s independence celebrations.
Gbagbo said the idea behind this year’s ceremony in the commercial capital was "sobriety", having decided to postpone initial plans for a large-scale military parade until after the results of the elections are in.
The plans were also hamstrung by a desperate cash shortage, with the state providing only four billion Ivorian francs (around six million euros) instead of an expected 20 billion for the event.
The country, once the powerhouse of west Africa and its leading cocoa producer, has been split since September 2002 after a failed coup against Gbagbo.
Government forces control the Christian-dominated south while the ex-rebel New Forces (FN) of Prime Minister Guillaume Soro hold the mainly Muslim north.
For the moment, the FN has disarmed at Korhogo in the north of the country, but under a peace accord signed late in 2008, the process should be completed nationwide two months before an election is held.
One of the most contentious issues affecting the election is the voters’ roll of about 5.7 million names. Gbagbo’s camp has alleged that some of the names included are not those of Ivorian nationals.
The president dissolved the previous election authority in February this year over allegedly fraudulent names, and he accused the previous commission president of corruption.