Ivory Coast techies elect new 'Web Mayor' to foster healthy online community, aid largest city

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – A 22-year-old who lives with his parents is the new mayor of Ivory Coast’s largest city, at least according to the West African nation’s active community of self-described Internet geeks.

Abidjan’s budding network of bloggers, strategists, designers and Web entrepreneurs organized a separate vote for “Web Mayor,” in late April days after Ivorians went to the polls for local elections.

Emmanuel Assouan was crowned leader for a group that in recent years has dreamed up creative ways to aid the city’s population of roughly 4 million people and draw attention to government shortcomings in areas like traffic congestion and power supply, said Amevi Midekor, who helped organize the vote.

Assouan beat out a crowded field of 12 candidates, with more than 25 per cent of 534 votes counted.

In a suit, he took the oath of office on Friday night with his parents looking on. As he placed his right hand on a gleaming white iPad, Assouan vowed to foster an online community that was “healthy, safe and rich in content.” Ivory Coast has a reputation for cybercrime, which has placed it on blacklists for websites like PayPal.

But it’s clear Abidjan’s techies see their work as central to reforming the broader image of Ivory Coast.

“Always we hear the same things about Ivory Coast – the problems of war, of politics,” said Bacely Yorobi, head of a social media marketing firm called Social Spot and the third-place candidate for “Web Mayor.”

“We hear no information about the world of technology. So we want the Web community to speak with one voice and bring the message that Ivory Coast is back, and we are having a technological revolution,” Yorobi said.

The online community came of age during Ivory Coast’s 2010-11 postelection violence, which ended with heavy fighting in Abidjan prior to the April 2011 arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to leave office despite losing the vote to current President Alassane Ouattara.

Using Twitter hashtags and maps, members alerted one another to violence and to people in need of food or medical care.

With the conflict over and recovery under way, Edith Brou, blogger and founder of a webzine geared to Ivorian women, said she wanted Abidjan to blossom into “the next technopole” rivaling other African cities like Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya.

Like other techies, she said the group had little interest in politics. She drew a contrast between April’s government-sponsored local elections, which produced pockets of unrest when losing candidates contested the results, and the vote for “Web Mayor,” which was decidedly peaceful.

“It’s the difference between a clean election and a dirty election,” said Brou, who placed second in the “Web Mayor” vote. “In the local elections, when you lose, you cry, you insult someone, you rally your supporters. For us, it’s different. We are here to work together to develop the community. I lost, I accepted it, and I congratulated the person who won. It’s that easy.”

Still, certain members of Abidjan’s online community don’t shy away from challenging the government or highlighting its failures.

In late January, responding to a wave of electricity cuts, 37-year-old designer and advertiser Charles Dadie created a black-hooded cartoon villain named Delestron – a play on the French word for power cut, “delestage.”

Though initially intended as a joke, Dadie soon gave Delestron his own Facebook page, and he has amassed more than 4,700 “likes.” Following a citywide power cut earlier this month, a graphic on the page showed Delestron standing over a map saying, “Tonight I will strike everywhere at once.”

“Delestron was created to denounce the power cuts with a bit of humour,” Dadie said. “This is the character of Ivorians. And I think this is a more advanced method of articulating our concerns. It’s not violent. And it allows people to express their opinion quickly, so that the authorities are aware of it.”

The national electricity company already had its own superheroes: Two men in full-body orange-and-green spandex suits who restore power with a simple nod of the head. In a video on the company’s home page, the men work their magic at a home, a factory and a hospital where a woman is undergoing an ultrasound before ending up at an outdoor dance party.

But after Delestron’s popularity took off, a new female superhero appeared on the scene, informing Abidjan residents of efforts to repair power cuts. Electra’s 710 Facebook followers are also treated to detailed posts on rate structures. The character was widely believed to have been created by the national electricity company, though officials have not confirmed this, and the company could not be reached for comment.

Dadie said it would “probably be better if officials focused on improving the electricity situation rather than creating cartoons.”

But the attention garnered by Delestron shows the potential power of online activism in Abidjan, something Assouan, the new “Web Mayor,” said he hopes to use to spur innovation in online commerce, government and education.

He doesn’t have much time, however. A new election for “Web Mayor” is tentatively scheduled for next spring.