President Ouattara’s surprise decision to stand aside

President Ouattara’s surprise decision to stand aside

The president’s strategy, whether based on political stability or strategic calculations, have upended the race.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

President Alassane Ouattara’s announcement in early March that he will not contest Côte d’Ivoire’s October 31, 2020 elections ensures that, for the first time since the country’s independence from France in 1960, a democratically elected president will hand over power to an incoming democratically elected president.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The constitutional consolidation of power by Ouattara’s RHDP party risks Côte d’Ivoire’s economic growth and political stability
– The partisan stance of the country’s institutions, such as the judiciary, the national electoral body and the military, could reignite ethnic divisions and tensions
– An increasingly politicised judiciary appears to be targeting and limiting the political freedom of rivals like Guillaume Soro
– There may be heightened political tensions as a result of an opposition alliance between former Presidents, Henri Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo

Ten years on from the post-election violence that rocked Côte d’Ivoire and resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths, the country is experiencing relative peace, stability and economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Côte d’Ivoire has since 2012 recorded an impressive annual economic growth averaging 9% and is now the largest economy in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA). Furthermore, the closure of the UN peacekeeping operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), on 28 June 2017, affirmed the country’s political stability. The extent of this stability was exemplified by President Ouattara’s decision in early March not to contest in the country’s presidential elections in October — a surprise given his previous ambiguous statements.

However, recent legislative and executive constitutional revisions of the 2016 constitution by the newly formed coalition party, the Rally of the Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), casts doubts about the elections. Indeed, RHDP’s formation was to ensure an electoral first-round landslide victory for the incumbent by merging Ouattara’s party, the Rally of the Republicans (RDR), with other parties, such as the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and Generations and People in Solidarity (GPS).

But the PDCI, led by former president Henri Bédié, refused to join the merger and instead welcomed the prospect of forming an alliance with former president Laurent Gbgabo of Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). Like the PDCI, the GPS (led by Ouattara’s former premier and president of the Ivorian National Assembly, Guillaume Soro) declined to join the coalition, with Soro later declaring his presidential aspirations. Uncertainty about the presidential elections has further been compounded by the palpable lack of confidence and impartiality in the country’s justice system, which has on occasion been utilised against Ouattara’s opponents, notably Soro.

OUATTARA’S AND THE RHDP’S POLITICAL ASTUTENESS

Photo: @DRhdp/Twitter

While Ouattara’s decision was welcomed, both by domestic and international political observers, including opposition parties and allies such as France, subsequent constitutional amendments suggest RHDP intends to remain in power. These calculative constitutional changes involve the legislature, where the term of office for parliamentarians will now be extended in the event that elections cannot be held on time, and the executive branch, where the vice president will now be appointed by the president in unison with Ivorian parliament and not at the ballot box. Both of these constitutional revisions largely favour RHDP, which currently holds a majority in parliament.

Opposition parties and some civil society organisations have expressed their concerns about the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI)’s composition, alleging that the majority of the commissioners are closely affiliated with the RHDP. CEI’s credibility was highlighted in 2016 by the African Court on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights (ACHRPR), which ruled that the composition of members of CEI largely favoured Ouattara’s RHDP. However, despite CEI revising their composition following the ACHRPR ruling, the opposition still argues that, of the 15 commission members, more than half are close to the executive. Concerns and tensions are also rife between the government and the opposition on whether the election should be postponed due to the health threat posed by COVID-19.

Uncertainty regarding the October polls has been accentuated by the recent stifling of the opposition voices by what appears to be a politicised judiciary. Several charges have been levied against leading opposition figures in the last year. In October, Jacques Mangoua, a key PDCI member, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly being in possession of illegal firearms, though he was released this year. In April, an Abidjan court sentenced Soro, currently in exile in France, in absentia for embezzlement — the court convicted him to 20 years in prison and stripped him of his civic rights for seven years. Days after Soro’s conviction, Côte d’Ivoire withdrew from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights Protocol, further bringing into question the country’s judicial independence — notably, the African Court had earlier adjudicated for the suspension of Soro’s arrest warrant.

FORMIDABLE OPPOSITION FIGURES, BUT WILL THEY UNITE IN TIME?

Photo: Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/US Air Force

Ouattara’s decision not to contest in the October polls has left Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, as RHDP’s presidential nominee. Ouattara will likely continue to target Solo allies to ensure his successor emerges victorious. Indeed, in early May, Soro affiliates including 14 soldiers and 5 civilians were arrested for their involvement in an alleged Soro-orchestrated coup. Despite his sentencing, Soro has resolved to continue his presidential bid as he still retains popularity, especially in the north.

Soro’s perceived threat to Ouattara is further evidenced by his retention of close ties with his former rebel group Forces Nouvelles, which he led in support of Ouattara in the 2010 elections, and its combatants, who have since been drafted into the army. The Ivorian military is known to be highly politicised and ethnically divided and staged two mutinies in 2014 and 2017. Both incidents were closely tied to Soro and are believed to be behind Ouattara’s political persecution against him.

As the October elections loom, expect political realignments between two of the country’s veteran political heavyweights, Bédié, 86 and Gbagbo, 74, and other political parties, such as the GPS. PDCI’s refusal to join Ouattara’s RHDP was because of Bédié’s intention to vie for the presidency. And whilst FPI leader Gbagbo, currently in Belgium after his 2019 ICC acquittal, may not present his candidature as he was convicted to a twenty-year sentence for ‘economic crimes’ in 2018 — he still intends to thwart an RHDP victory. Indeed, a political pact between Gbgabo and Bédié has already been mounted, with Gbgabo soon expected to throw his weight behind a Bédié candidature. With the FPI’s backing, Bédié could garner ethnic support among two main ethnicities, Akan and Krou, in southern and parts of central Cote d’Ivoire.

An extended alliance between Soro’s GPS and Bédié’s PDCI would present a challenge to the RHDP, more so because such an alliance will encompass a union of political parties between northern and southern Côte d’Ivoire. A Soro–Bédié alliance might significantly diminish RHDP’s support in northern Côte d’Ivoire, Ouattara’s main stronghold. Soro’s supporters could also be inclined to support Bédié given his current political marginalisation. However, such an alliance is likely to materialise only if Soro withdraws from the presidential contest — it is difficult to envisage how he will overcome state-orchestrated judicial and political tribulations.

Ouattara’s decision to relinquish his candidature undoubtedly mitigates the risk of political violence in the October polls. However, as evidenced by the 2018 municipal elections, which resulted in four fatalities and the intercommunal clashes of May 2019, in central Côte d’Ivoire, which led to fourteen deaths, ethnic divisions are still palpable. The next two months will be significant in ascertaining who will be the main opposition candidate against Coulibaly. In the event of a unified opposition alliance between the PDCI, FPI and GPS, a Bédié victory is a distinct possibility.