Harnessing radio to promote democracy in Ivory Coast

Essan Emile Ako (right, in orange), managing director of Radio Arc-en-ciel, a community-based radio station in the urban area of Abobo in Ivory Coast, chats with fellow station volunteers in the studio in September 2015. Photo by: Kendra Helmer / USAID

When deadly conflict erupted in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, following the 2010 elections, Essan Emile Ako was living in a student dorm near the epicenter of the violence.

Ako was a master’s degree candidate in English linguistics with plans to pursue a PhD when a disputed election turned into a civil war. Caught in the middle of the chaos, Ako was forced to flee Abidjan to his village, where he remained for five months, during which time forces loyal to presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara and supported by France and the United Nations stormed the presidential residence, removing Laurent Gbagbo from power.

When Ako finally returned, he encountered a city in shambles.

Hundreds of civilians had been killed, banks and health centers were shut down, and there was an embargo on medical equipment — preventing medicine from being imported.

Ako turned to the radio waves to help his community reorganize and develop. He was named managing director of a community radio station called Radio Arc-en-ciel in the northern commune of Abobo in Abidjan — a poor and densely populated neighborhood of 1.5 million people struggling against the aftereffects of civil war.

Ako began organizing on-air community roundtables on topics such as forgiveness, reparation, and free and fair elections. He invited community and religious leaders as well as youth to participate to promote social cohesion and prevent future violence.

Then, in 2015, in the lead up to elections in October, Radio Arc-en-ciel received a $48,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives to expand its social cohesion work. With the new funds, the radio station organized 15 outdoor public radio shows for the community. The recorded shows — which attracted 300 to 500 people each — included music, dancing, and roundtable discussions with community leaders and electoral process experts.

Ako and his team also asked members of the community to convey their own messages in their own languages, and after gathering all the audio from the event they broadcast the show and those messages to the rest of the Abobo community.

Last month, Ivory Coast’s citizens went to the polls again. Ouattara won in a landslide victory in a presidential election reported to be free, fair and peaceful.

Devex sat down with Ako, now 28 years old, to discuss his work in radio and promoting democracy, as well as his home country. Below are highlights from our conversation.

Why do think radio and public communication is so important for promoting democracy?

Democracy is first and foremost about the population participating, the population having their say … in the public debate or in the political debate going on in the country … So we as a radio station, we organize public radio programing. And when we invite the population — they come and we give out a topic or we select a topic together — they feel like saying what they really want to say. And this [brings] the population together in having their say in the political debate going on. So radio is a really important tool. ... Also radio is one of the most spread and loved media in West Africa. So conveying messages about democracy, about participation … about liberty and freedom of expression and anything related to democracy through the radio is very powerful because the population will get the information clearer than any other medium.

Is radio more accessible than television? What about print publications?

Yes, radio is more accessible than television, because unfortunately in some parts of the country [people] don’t have access to television. They don’t even have electricity in some remote villages, but with radio you don’t need electricity — just batteries, or your cell phone and then you have your radio.

It’s really more accessible than print publications. ... First, because of illiteracy. More than 40 percent of the population cannot read. So it’s difficult for them to get the information even if they have a print paper. The second problem is transportation. Almost all the print papers are printed in Abidjan, in the capital city. And some places are as remote as 600 kilometers, 700 kilometers, 800 kilometers from Abidjan. So transporting the papers from Abidjan to these remote places — remember that we don’t have a metro in Côte d’Ivoire. We don’t have local airplanes going almost every hour to these places. So you have to go with lorries or with coaches that sometimes take two days or three days before reaching these villages.

Ivory Coast had what appeared to be free and fair elections in October. Are you optimistic about democracy in your country?

From my point of view, and this is my personal point of view, Côte d’Ivoire has made progress in terms of democracy. Because being able to have free and fair elections in the country is a sign of a kind of political maturity from the population, because it had not always been the case in the country. … Now, the population has understood that giving the opportunity to other people even though we are not of the same political parties, to express their view, to win and then accepting to be the loser and working together with the president that is elected, is something really interesting that has happened in 2015. Before 2015 it wasn’t always easy. … In 1999, there was … a political coup that led to a rebellion, a crisis that destroyed so many people and had consequences on almost all the populations — illiteracy, dropouts, killings, insecurity and all these issues. So really we have gone a step forward… Nobody wants war in the country anymore.

What are your hopes for your future?

My greatest dream now is to have a community radio station that will focus on young people… their access to good education, their access to employment or young people creating their own jobs, their own small enterprises and companies. Young people being responsible enough to avoid manipulation from politicians and to avoid being involved in insecurity. This is where I’m going to work and what I will focus on in the next five years, if I have the funds to build my radio station.

Do you ever think about going into politics?

Especially in my [country], most people go into politics because they see politics as the only place where you can make money easily, the only place where you can succeed easily. But at the same time politics is also something that can destroy you easily. So many people in my family including my wife don’t want me to talk about politics at all. But I feel something like a call for me to serve my country at a certain level, maybe at the parliamentary level, this is my primary target. And then from this parliamentary level, depending on the context, depending on the situation … I may have bigger dreams or bigger visions.

Democracy Matters is a global conversation hosted by Devex, in partnership with International IDEA, to discuss accountability as a central element of deepening democracy. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #DemocracyMatters.

About the author

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    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.