Côte d’Ivoire: An uncertain future despite Ouattara’s landslide win
Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential elections on October 31, 2020, resulted in an expected landslide victory and a third term for the incumbent president, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara garnered 94.27 per cent of the votes against his sole competitor, Kouadio Konan Bertin, an independent candidate and a dissenting voice of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) who accumulated a mere 1.99 per cent of votes. Despite his successful re-election, Ouattara’s victory has largely been challenged by the opposition and viewed as emblematic of longstanding ethnic tensions between Ivorians, which will be further discussed within this article.
Ouattara’s decisive victory was marred by controversy over the constitutionality of his third presidential bid. While Ouattara and his party, Rally of the Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), espoused that his re-entry was necessary after the death of his successor and Prime Minister, Amadou Gon Coulibay in July 2020, many disputed the validity of his candidature. Indeed, the Ivorian Popular Front’s (FPI) and RHDP’s decision to boycott the general elections significantly contributed to Ouattara’s overwhelming victory. He further claimed that the promulgation of the country’s constitution in 2016 effectively allowed him to ‘restart the clock’ and run again - a decision that was endorsed by the country’s constitutional court. Ouattara’s insistence on the validity of his candidature was highly controversial, especially in southern Côte d’Ivoire, a stronghold for the main opposition party, the PDCI. The PDCI’s Henri Konan Bédié called for “civil disobedience” from his supporters and that of other opposition political parties across the country. Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term prompted protests and demonstrations in Yopougon, Bangolo, and the country’s economic hub, Abidjan. These protests across key Ivorian cities resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Ivorians, wounded more than 150 others and led to the apprehension of more than 50 opposition supporters. The protests also resulted in the ransacking of the Independent Electoral Commission’s (CEI) offices in Bangolo prior to the elections. Furthermore, the electoral validity of the Ivorian elections has been questioned by key international and domestic electoral observers.
The government and security apparatus in Côte d’Ivoire has been further accused of using extreme force to target opposition strongholds and their respective leaders. In the aftermath of the October polls, Ivorian security officials raided Bédié’s home, placing him under temporary de facto house arrest. Government forces also arrested and prosecuted FPI’s leader Pascal Affi N’Guessan on claims of fomenting civil disobedience and “conspiracy against the authority of the state”. Nonetheless, the recent post-election events have surprisingly resulted in the resumption of talks between Pascal Affi N’Guessan and former president and founder of FPI, Laurent Gbagbo. Indeed, prior to the most recent presidential elections, former president Gbagbo had refused to endorse Pascal Affi N’Guessan - a decision that had seen the party divided into two factions (a pro Gbagbo wing and N’Guessan wing).
Côte d'Ivoire has been left divided as a result of these recent elections, with international electoral observers agreeing that the country is now fractured as a result of non-inclusive voting mechanisms. National observers such as Indigo, an independent Ivorian electoral observer, stated that 21 per cent of the polling stations were not opened. Reports of political violence and ethnic clashes continued after the polls and resulted in the deaths of at least 50 Ivorians, with reported government crackdowns on opposition supporters and ethnic confrontations between the Dioula and Baoulé groups. These worrying ethnic tensions were highlighted by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, who stated that the “violence related to issues of nationality, toxic regional and ethnic divides, economic inequalities, discrimination and impunity for past crimes.” Violence following the election also resulted in the displacement of Ivorians to neighbouring countries, including Guinea, Liberia and Ghana. As of November 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported as many as 8,000 Ivorians had sought refuge.
What awaits Côte d’Ivoire?
After his victory, Ouattara adopted a more reconciliatory tone and invited former President Bédié to participate in political dialogue and peaceful talks. This followed calls for political dialogue and national reconciliation from regional organisations such as ECOWAS, the United Nations Office of West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), the African Union (AU) and other key international partners. To this effect, Ouattara has reportedly offered to pardon Gbagbo, his predecessor and political nemesis. Gbagbo has subsequently planned his return to Côte d’Ivoire after his International Criminal Court (ICC) acquittal in January 2019, with the issuance of diplomatic and civilian passports. This reconciliatory tone was further demonstrated by the release of FPI leader and former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who is currently under judicial supervision.
During his mid-December inaugural address to the Ivorian people, Ouattara made several salient steps towards healing a wounded nation. He named Kouadio Konan Bertin, the lone presidential candidate of October’s election, as Minister for National Reconciliation, and appointed Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko as chair of the national dialogue and reconciliation forum, which includes political parties and civil society organisations. Overall Ouattara’s governmental appointments are another salient step in healing a wounded nation. It remains to be seen whether these overtures to opposition members will sustainably mitigate ethnic and political tensions, especially given the March 6, 2021, parliamentary elections which are set to test Ouattara’s majority in the National Assembly. A joint opposition ticket between PDCI and FPI would go a long way in gauging the efficacy of the recent rapprochement between Ouattara’s RHDP and Bédié’s PDCI, as well the extent (if any) to which reforms within CEI will have taken place.
The ongoing détente towards national political dialogue and reconciliation between the incumbent president and the opposition in Côte d’Ivoire represent a significant step towards abating ethnic and political tensions, especially in light of the looming parliamentary elections. However, for genuine and sustainable efforts towards national dialogue and reconciliation, both parties will have to compromise on their demands - a condition that so far appears unlikely given the recent lull in talks between the RHDP and the opposition.
The upcoming parliamentary elections should nonetheless give political and interested observers a much more comprehensive gauge of the early November harmonisation and its practicality. Whilst the plausibility of tangible and substantive reforms of institutions such as CEI and the constitutional court may appear impractical given the proximity to the parliamentary elections, the conduct, neutrality and efficacy of the aforementioned institutions will no doubt heavily impact national dialogue and reconciliation before and after the elections in Côte d’Ivoire.
Wesley Kajirwa is a graduate with a Masters degree in International Relations and holds a graduate certificate in Politics and International Studies, both from the University of Melbourne. He currently works as Programme Support Officer at Interpeace Organization and has particular interest in the Horn of Africa as well West Africa.