Remarks by Ambassador Bisa Williams Speaks about Upcoming Elections in Cote d’Ivoire

Thank you Marie-Laure, Mr. Ambassador, for that warm introduction. And thank you to ENSEA for the use of your facilities. It is a pleasure to be with you in Abidjan today and an honor to speak to such a distinguished group.

Today I would like to discuss with you the importance of free, fair, and peaceful elections in democracy. I am delighted that we have an opportunity for Q&A as well, since what I want to encourage most of all in my remarks is participation!

Democracy, when embraced, is an engine for stability, empowering people and helping governments succeed. Elections are an essential part of that engine. Many nations across West Africa will have elections over the next two years. Voters will have an opportunity to choose their nations’ future, identifying with ideas and political platforms that they believe will bring the greatest peace, stability, and prosperity. My visit to Cote d’Ivoire this week follows stops in Mali, Togo, Senegal, and Guinea for wider discussion with others in the region about this topic.

On his first visit as president to the continent, in Ghana as a matter of fact, President Obama said that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” In that vein, elections are not purely a matter of choosing between candidates … strongmen or not. The central question for you must be, what do you want for your country? Elections should be about the needs of your families, your communities, and your nation as a whole.

Around the region, there are already examples of energized and committed citizens taking an active role to shape their futures and the future of their countries. In 2012, Senegal’s voters demonstrated their displeasure with President Wade’s attempt to extend his mandate: they did so, not through violence, but through activism. Youth and civil society came out in great numbers to ensure that Senegal remained a beacon of democracy and prevented it falling into a pit of authoritarianism or dictatorship.

Nigeria’s citizens participated peacefully and enthusiastically during the hotly contested elections in March and April, demonstrating their dedication to democracy and democratic principles. Following the election, President Goodluck Jonathan stood by his public commitment to non-violence and his willingness to abide by the wishes of his people, and gracefully conceded the election to President-Elect Muhammadu Buhari in a fashion that drew praise and respect throughout the world.

In many respects the nature of the Nigerian election was a product of the steadfast leadership of Attahiru Jega and the staff of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which made extensive efforts to bolster the credibility and transparency of the electoral process, efforts that set an impressive standard for Nigeria and the rest of the continent. I would hope from the bottom of my heart that Côte d’Ivoire and other nations will build upon this example and perhaps exceed it in the years to come.

In Nigeria’s wake, several other countries can also seize the moment to strengthen and elevate democratic institutions through the polls. Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea will face critical crossroads with their elections in October of this year.

The top priority for our partnership with Côte d’Ivoire in 2015 is ensuring a peaceful, inclusive, and transparent presidential election in October that bring as many voters to the polls as possible. We know that such an election is possible. Furthermore, we are confident that a successful election will go a long way to help this country regain its traditional place as a regional leader and realize its goal of becoming a strong, vibrant democracy and an emerging economy by 2020. As your nation continues along its current economic trajectory, we also know that investors will look to the 2015 election as an indicator of the depth and durability of the country’s recovery.

You have an opportunity in October to turn the page on past conflict. By working together to consolidate the gains of the past three years through an electoral process in which every vote counts, and in which every vote is freely expressed, free from violence or intimidation. The elections are an important step in the country’s emergence and all Ivoirians have a role to play in making it a success. Other countries facing their own elections will also look to Côte d’Ivoire to set an example for inclusive, transparent, and peaceful elections.

Although the electoral reform process in Côte d’Ivoire has not been easy, we have been encouraged by the overall willingness of government and political and civil society leaders to set aside differences and work together to move electoral preparations forward in a spirit of common interest.

The United States is providing assistance through multiple efforts to support Côte d’Ivoire during this electoral period. Our electoral assistance includes work by our implementing partners, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Foundation for Election System (IFES), which are providing support directly to the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). Both organizations have a long history of supporting electoral systems and the democratic process around the world, providing the technical expertise necessary to complete reforms in cooperation with the authorities in charge of elections. We are also working to help ensure that all voters – especially key groups such as women and youth – are engaged in the process.

In addition, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives is helping to reinforce the CEI’s information management capacity by supporting efforts to make information available to the general public, both the voters and the candidates. This will help to create a better understanding of the electoral process, and by extension, increase confidence in the election results when they are declared.

A key component of the strength of all democracies is participation. I know we have many leaders present here today representing civil society, youth groups, women’s associations, and political parties. Many of you were active in encouraging your communities to register to vote and in working with the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) to encourage an inclusive and transparent registration process. I applaud your efforts and encourage you to continue spreading your message from now until Election Day.

I would also like to highlight the integral role of the press in the electoral process. Media should provide fair coverage and equitable access to all political parties. While the media has traditionally involved the printed press and broadcast media only, new media including online journalism and social media is quickly gaining influence here in Côte d’Ivoire. Journalists can accurately and impartially inform the public. Governments must respect the right of journalists to report openly as elections unfold. As Côte d’Ivoire looks ahead to the 2015 presidential election, the press – and I know there are many of you here today – will be called upon to provide that fair and equitable coverage so that voters can make informed and responsible choices.

In addition, I would like to emphasize the importance of constructive youth participation in these and future elections. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, youth are playing an increasingly important role in encouraging economic, social, and democratic development. The youth of Côte d’Ivoire are committed to turning the page on violence and building a stronger future for themselves and their country. You too can continue to spread the message. Tell your peers, your relatives, all who will listen to “Go to the polling stations. Vote. Participate.”

Elections are a fundamental part of any democratic system. However, as we have seen in the United States and elsewhere, elections alone do not make a democracy. Democracy requires strong, accessible, responsive institutions and the active involvement of an engaged citizenry and a vibrant civil society, a private sector strengthened by a strong state, as well as the commitment of all political parties to work together in the spirit of compromise for the greater good of the nation. So many of you in this room are engaged in this work, which will benefit your country beyond Election Day. This is truly vital work and I encourage you to press forward and continue those efforts.

Now, as I conclude, I welcome your questions. I also welcome hearing from you about your efforts to improve democracy here in Cote d’Ivoire. Thank you for your attention.