After Ivory Coast independence from France in 1960, the country enjoyed religious and ethnic harmony. All that changed in 1999 when Army General Robert Guei led a military coup that overthrew the government of Henri Konan Bedié hastened a period of instability and civil war that left the country effectively split in two for decades.
Government troops clashed with rebel soldiers led by General Robert Guei and Guillaume Soro beginning on September 19, 2002. General Guei was killed during the clashes on September 19, 2002. Northern Muslims expressed discontent in a mutiny that escalated into a full-scale rebellion. The conflict appeared to have ended with the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace accords of January 2003, creating a new government of national reconciliation with power shared between the northern-based rebels and the southern government leadership.
All of Cote d’Ivoire’s presidential elections since 1994, except the last election in 2015, have been marred by disruptive violence, which led the country to default on external market debt in two instances, in 1999 and 2011. It is evident that the political battle for the presidential palace in the Plateau district of Abidjan, will be the affair of three parties, RHDP, FPI and the PDCI, since most of the small parties might have difficulties to meet-up with the sponsorship (signatures) regulations put in place by the Independent Electoral Committee (CENI).
Ouattara’s push for a third term could lead to further splintering
Cote d’Ivoire’s RHDP ruling ‘Rassemblement des Houphouetistes pour la Democratie et la Paix (RHDP) believes that the November 2016 constitution, creating a Third Republic, allows Mr. Ouattara to run for his first term in the current republic.
The Ivory Coast law limits presidential terms to two, but the October election is seen as a test of stability in a country still recovering from a brief civil war in 2010 and 2011 which claimed more than 3,000 lives.
While, death squads roamed the economic capital of Abidjan. Mass graves were dug and promptly filled, when the then-President, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to cede to the victor, Ouattara. The election commission’s role is particularly sensitive and opposition parties suspect local election offices favour Ouattara. Meanwhile, in July, the national election commission plans to reform these offices and consult all parties in the run-up to the vote.
On 30 March 2011, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1975 (2011), repeating its calls for Mr. Gbagbo to step down and urging an immediate end to the violence against civilians. The crisis culminated in Gbagbo’s arrest by French-backed pro-Ouattara forces in April 2011. Ouattara was sworn into office one month later, while Gbagbo was sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity.
The sprawling Abidjan conurbation
The RHDP possibility of scoring a landslide victory for the first round of the elections are very slim. This is because the political landscape has witnessed a lot of mutations. While the PDCI has left the coalition, the FPI has witnessed many splits, some small parties emerged, the ruling coalition has been terribly weakened by the departure of some barons and allies like the Vice President Daniel Kablan Duncan who is still being wooed by his former party (PDCI).
Duncan was considered a close ally of Ouattara’s. He was a member of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), which was part of the reigning alliance Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). When the PDCI broke away from the alliance in 2018, the 77-year-old Duncan remained loyal to Ouattara.
Ouattara, who has governed since 2011, had won plaudits in March after announcing that he would not seek another term in power while Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly was announced as the party’s candidate for the presidency.
Tensions run high in the world’s top cocoa producer since Ouattara’s preferred successor and ruling party candidate Amadou Gon Coulibaly unexpectedly died of heart problems. His death prompted 78-year-old Ouattara to announce on Aug. 6 he’ll run instead because of “the challenges we face to maintain peace.”
Sporadic protest marches, at the behest of the Ivorian opposition, against a third term for President Alassane Ouattara at the October 31, 2020 presidential election has been reported in Abidjan and other areas of Cote D’Ivoire on August 13, 2020. The mass protests descended into three days of violence in which six people died and 100 were wounded during clashes between opposition supporters and security forces.
On August 23, 2020 the governing Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace party said Ouattara was nominated as its candidate at an event attended by 100,000 people in a stadium in the country’s commercial capital, Abidjan.
The country’s election authorities on August 21, 2020 rejected appeals by Gbagbo and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro to be allowed to run in the election. The two men had appealed to the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) against a decision to not include them in electoral lists for the ballot.
Backlash from the opposition
Meanwhile, the opposition has been crying foul, declaring that Ouattara’s decision contravenes Article 183 of the new Ivorian constitution which does not allow for three consecutive mandates.
The parties of Ouattara’s predecessor Laurent Gbagbo and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro have formed an alliance with the main opposition, Bedie who was president from 1993-1999 and leads the Democratic Party of Côte D’Ivoire (PDCI). The 86-year old Henri Konan Bédié, and Pascal Affi N’Guessan of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) are the main opposition challengers.
From 2005-2018, the PDCI formed a coalition government with Ouattara’s Houphouetists Rally for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). This helped Ouattara win a landslide victory in the 2015 presidential election with more than 80 percent of the vote. This alliance has since unravelled and many PDCI members defected to the ruling RHDP, limiting its potential as an opposition party.
The opposition has also decried the composition of the independent electoral commission as unbalanced. It is unclear whether recent reforms of the commission announced by the government will assuage the opposition’s grievances, expert’s say.
The FPI meanwhile was once a pre-eminent political force in Ivory Coast. With Gbagbo at the helm, it governed the country from 2000-2010. But since its founder’s forced exile, the party has been split between the official wing and the so-called “Gbagbo or Nothing Wing”, who have already boycotted all elections since Gbagbo left. The official FPI party only won 9.3 percent of the votes in the 2015 presidential election.
Ouattara’s greatest campaign asset might be the unconvincing state of the opposition figures who are actually free to stand, after the Ivorian authorities’ strong-armed the judicial system into blocking the hopes of the of the smooth-talking former parliamentary speaker Guillame Soro, who had great appeal for Cote D’Ivoire’s growing young population. Ivory Coast has a very young population, with a median age of under 19. Young people are increasingly frustrated with the power structures of the country.
Soro now exiles in France since December 2019 after conviction in absentia for corruption and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison in April 2020, while a number of his supporters remain behind bars in his home country. Street protest and urban frustrations are a real factor, and something that fuels vocal grassroots support for both the Soro and Gbagbo camps.
Similarly, the ex-president Laurent Gbagbo remains in Brussels, due to the fact that the International Criminal Court considers the prosecution appeal against his acquittal on charges of human rights crimes. Gbagbo’s lawyers had appealed for his unconditional release, arguing the ICC could not limit the movements of an acquitted person. The court rejected the demand, but revoked certain restrictions, allowing the former Ivorian president to recover his passports.
Pascal Affi N’Guessan, 67, once a close associate of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, officially announced on 2 August, 2020, that he will be a candidate for the presidency in the upcoming October elections in an attempt to close the chapter on the blood-drenched and 2-decade crisis in the country. This could be Affi N’Guessan’s second go-around against Ouattara, losing to him after amassing only 9.29% of the votes in the 2015 presidential elections which were marked by widespread violence and fraud.
Increased risks around the upcoming election
President Alassane Ouattara has always presented himself as a statesmanlike figure with restraint and respect for institutional values, setting a tone that has helped in the management of numerous regional crises exemplified by his participation in a five-president mission to Bamako, and his effort to broker a solution to Mali’s political and protest deadlock.
Ouattara’s presidency ushered in a period of stability for the West African nation, where elections have historically been fraught. His leadership of the reform of the regional currency that will see the end of the West African CFA franc would have been the crowning achievement of a presidency that had taken his country from post-war stagnation to sustained growth GDP growth rates around seven per cent before COVID-19 forced a slowdown, as it has worldwide. He has presided over the annual economic growth of at least 7%.
While not everyone has enjoyed the fruits of this growth, significant numbers of people have been lifted out of poverty and the country has enjoyed a period of relative stability. Mr. Ouattara’s popularity has waned in recent years, as many Ivorians have failed to see the economic expansion he oversaw translate into better livelihoods. Some 46% of the population still live in poverty and cocoa farmers have suffered steep fluctuations in global prices for their crops.
Corruption has appeared to be on the rise, and the obvious prosperity, construction and consumption in parts of Abidjan were not reflected nationwide nor in all sections of society. While the law imposes a two-term limit, he has argued the adoption of a new constitution after his first term in 2016 allows him to run again. Yet he may well conclude that, from his political perspective, there is no viable alternative.
Risking triggering chaos
In Africa, dictatorships are born out of the sad belief of a patronage system that breeds sycophants and steer them into believing that one person who has been in power and on whose backs many are surviving, should remain in power until death.
Political infighting aside, many analysts and activists warn that Ouattara’s current term has been defined by deteriorating political freedoms. In a report last year, Amnesty International raised alarm about a pattern of “arbitrary arrests and harassment of people for perceived critical views and dissent,” noting that there have been “at least 17 cases of arbitrary detention of journalists and bloggers in the last five years.”
Why is Ouattara now so afraid to relinquish power? Why did he not proudly allow Ivory Coast’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power to take place, which could have been his greatest legacy, nine years after a bloody civil war?