Tara O’Connor and Leonard Mbulle-Nziege investigate Côte d’Ivoire’s critical October Presidential elections, in which the incumbent, Alassane Outtara, will be seeking a third term in office
It’s official: incumbent President Alassane Ouattara will stand for election for a third term in a move that not only tests the spirit of the country’s democratic Constitution but again kicks into the long grass the country’s core political problem – a sustainable leadership succession.
Ouattara had sent mixed signals on whether he would go for another term but the death in office of his chosen successor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, on July 8 from heart disease prompted a formal announcement that he would be the ruling Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP) candidate in the October 31 Presidential election.
A new Constitution adopted in 2016 technically cancels out Ouattara’s two previous served mandates. Ouattara had promised to hand over to a new generation, to quit politics to write his memoirs and establish a leadership foundation. How much Ouattara’s decision will do for party unity is also unclear: several prominent RHDP leaders, notably including former Vice President and several-times Prime Minister Donald Kablan Duncan, Foreign Affairs Minister Marcel Amon Tanoh and Higher Education Minister Moise Toikeusse Abri, all resigned from their Cabinet posts after Ouattara chose Coulibaly to succeed him. Tanoh and Toikeusse have both since declared their candidacies for the election. Duncan may yet challenge his decades-long political ally, Ouattara.
Former President Henri Konan Bedié was confirmed in July as the opposition Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) candidate. From 2005 to 2018, the PDCI was in alliance with the RHDP; however, Bedié withdrew the PDCI from the coalition in 2018 after Ouattara refused to commit to a PDCI member serving as the coalition’s candidate for the 2020 elections. Since this development, Bedié has reconciled with and established a political alliance with his erstwhile political foe, former President Laurent Gbagbo and the hardline faction of Gbagbo’s party, the opposition Front Populaire Ivoirien. Gbagbo’s participation in the election is hypothetical, as he has not been granted authorisation to return to Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo also faces a 20-year prison sentence that was handed down in January 2018 for his alleged involvement in theft from the West African Central Bank which awaits him – if he returns.
Similarly, another key Presidential candidate, Guillaume Soro – a former warlord – who once served as Prime Minister and president of the national assembly under Ouattara, is currently living in exile in France, after he was sentenced in April in absentia to a 20-year jail term for money laundering. Bedié had announced that Soro’s political movement, Générations et Peuples Solidaires (GPS), had agreed to support the PDCI if it makes the second round of the country’s two-phased Presidential election.
So, as Côte d’Ivoire faces yet another critical Presidential poll on October 31, the country is riven with the same political fissures that it faced on the death of the country’s famous first President, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, in December 1993. Then, as now, political rivalry between Bedié, Ouattara and Gbagbo drove the country into ten years of conflict. Ouattara said in November that he would run for President if Bedié and Gbagbo were to declare their candidatures, stating that he would not leave the country in the hands of the individuals who destroyed it. Bedié, during his short stint as President, introduced a xenophobic policy of ‘Ivoirit’ in the 1990s, which marginalised Ivorians of northern, mainly Burkinabe, descent. This contributed to his overthrow in a 1999 coup that ushered in a decade of political violence and low-level civil war that destroyed Côte d’Ivoire’s once famous economy. Up to that point, Côte d’Ivoire bucked the pan-African trend and routinely posted growth rates of around 7% from its cocoa-dominated economy. The conflict reversed that prosperity and established the north-south, Muslim-Christian divisions as fault lines in the country’s politics.
Ouattara’s backers say he is best placed to secure an absolute majority in the elections, which would both protect the interests of the northern mainly Muslim elites and secure the RHDP’s future as a party not dependent on messy coalitions. Ouattara, a former head of the Africa department at the International Monetary Fund and central banker, is seen domestically as the international community’s preferred candidate. But Ouattara’s greatest obstacle is likely to be the international community: the Economic Community of West African States is opposed to the manipulation of Presidential term limits however it is wrapped constitutionally. France’s Emmanuel Macron in March praised Ouattara for his decision not to run for another term and in the past criticised Africa’s leaders who stay in office beyond the constitutionally mandated timeframes. France – the former colonial power – remains Côte d’Ivoire’s most important international ally.
However, the international community is leery of a Bedié Presidency and might support Ouattara’s third term to avoid one. Ouattara has restored the economy to its former glory: up to Covid-19, growth rates had not fallen below 7% since 2012, and the World Bank expects Côte d’Ivoire to become a middle-income country by 2035. The improvement has drawn in substantial domestic as well as foreign investment. What business and diplomats fear is that this obdurate quartet – Bedié, Gbabgo, Ouattara and Soro – in elections will result in political violence and a repeat of the 2010–2011 post-election violence, which led to about 3 000 deaths or, worse, a resumption of conflict.