The death of Amadou Gon Coulibaly on 8 July has left the Ivorian political party Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix – RHDP) without a candidate for the presidential election. Who can fill in his shoes?
Côte d’Ivoire: Guillaume Soro warns of the Fire Next Time
The forecast was as stark as it was chilling. Côte d’Ivoire will burn unless the ruling party agrees to deep reforms and international scrutiny ahead of next year’s presidential elections, according to Guilliame Soro, a former speaker of the assemblée nationale who has just announced his candidacy for the race.
“Opposition activists are regularly threatened, beaten, kidnapped , arbitrarily imprisoned and even murdered such as the young Noel Soro Kognon, killed on 7 July 2018 in Korhogo by activists of the ruling Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocraties et la paix (RHDP),” said Soro. “My country Côte d’Ivoire is in danger of burning again.”
This warning by a top politician has heavy regional implications.
Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring Ghana are the two most stable and prosperous countries in the sub-region, which has been hit by a tide of deadly jihadi insurgent attacks.
There are already signs of a scheme to fix the vote, says Soro.
Ruling party officials are making inflated claims about their membership numbers.
- “The RHDP has 3.7 million members according to its executive director Adama Bictogo,” said Soro,”… and it will win 62.% of the votes in the first round of presidential elections.”
- On current records, there are just over 6 million registered voters in Côte d’Ivoire.
This was an admission of fraud, insisted Soro.
- “This has never been seen in the political history of Africa, a new party claims 3.7 mn members out of a population of 25 mn.”
- The only way to stop the looming disaster of a violent contest over next year’s elections would be for President Alassane Ouattara and top officials of his RHDP to agree to negotiations for the restructuring of the Commission électorale indépendante (CEI), said Soro.
The UN should also be called in ensure there is fair play, as it was in 2010.
Even Laurent Gbagbo had agreed to UN scrutiny of national elections, added Soro.
The venue for Soro’s warnings – a lecture at London’s venerable Chatham House think tank frequented by policy makers and big corporations on 8 November – gave them still more weight.
Yet some tough questions have to be asked about Soro’s history and his ties to other political leaders.
- Soro led the Forces Nouvelles, a coalition of youth militia and rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war that has been accused of serial atrocities.
- Soro has since issued several apologies for his role, and the forces under his command in the war. “I accept my responsibility but I’m not proud of what happened. I have lost a cousin in the war and my brother-in-law was executed,” he said in London.
Now he says he is the only contender calling for a full South African-style truth and reconciliation commission to probe what happened in the war.
He doesn’t go into details. Any commission would be complicated by parallel criminal trial of ousted President Laurent Gbagbo at the international court in the Hague and his wife Simone in Abidjan, as well as sundry other figures on both sides of the battle lines.
Many Ivorians say the lack of formal reconciliation and accountability over the war could trigger future clashes.
That raises the matter of political deals ahead of next year’s election.
Soro’s command of the opposition Forces Nouvelles militia propelled him to the pinnacle of Ivorian politics. After five years of fighting, Gbagbo and his opponents including Soro negotiated a peace deal in 2007.
- Soro emerged as prime minister in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement.
- Gbagbo would stay as President.
- The peace deal barred Soro from standing in the presidential elections set for 2010.
Insiders in Abidjan speak of a political deal between the two men under which Soro would back Gbagbo for the presidency in 2010; that favour could have been reciprocated in the following election.
Although Soro dismisses talk of a deal, he concedes he has friends in Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivoirien and would be willing to meet with Gbagbo. His wife is from the Grand Ouest, the same region as Gbagbo.
Gbagbo won the first round of his ICC trial
But he is barred from returning to Côte d’Ivoire and is based in Belgium until an appeal hearing decides the future of the case.
- Another contender in next year’s elections and ousted President, Henri Konan Bédie, has already seen Gbagbo, presumably to discuss tactics
- When Soro forecasts mass unrest leading to violence, he knows of what he speaks.
- His supporters hail him as the smartest and nimblest contender in the new generation of politicians in Côte d’Ivoire.
Electoral landscape in 2020
Next year Soro looks like the only serious contender outside the three big political blocs:
Ouattara’s RHDP, Gbagbo’s FPI and Konan Bédie’s Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire
One of his acolytes, Alain Lobongon, compares Soro’s political trajectory to that of Emmanuel Macron in France.
- Like Macron, Soro has broken with the President he was serving under.
- He has formed his own party, Rassemblement pour la Côte d’Ivoire(RACI), to run for the top job and break the country’s political mould in the process.
Soro doesn’t like parallels with European politicians
His political skills have allowed him to navigate Ivorian and even regional politics, on his climb to the premier league.
But his political foes may choose to rattle some of the skeletons in the cupboard.
- An international warrant for Soro’s arrest, on charges linked to a failed putsch in Burkina Faso, has never been served on him.
- There is too the matter of the deaths of several detainees, held in horrendous conditions in a container guarded by the Forces Nouvelles.
- There was the assassination in 2011 of Ibrahim Coulibaly, a comrade in arms of Soro’s, killed by Outtara’s Forces républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire.
A father and son business
At the centre of this drama is the fraught relationship between Ouattara and Soro.
- In the 2010 election, Soro’s backing for Ouattara was decisive on polling day, and in the clashes that led to Gbagbo’s arrest by French soldiers.
- Perhaps Soro had expected more of a payback. In February he quit his post as Speaker of the Assemblée Nationale, a prelude to announcing his candidacy in next year’s presidential elections.
Yet to announce his own intentions for next year, Ouattara seemed unruffled, telling Radio France Internationale that Soro remained “one of my sons” and he didn’t rule out the return of the prodigal to the ruling party.
Soro thinks otherwise.
Suspicious that Ouattara will seek court approval to run for a third-term in 2020 or give full backing to Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly in the Presidentials, Soro sees no future for himself in the ruling party.
Bottom line: For now, none of the three main parties has a big enough lead to win the presidency fairly in the first round. That could mean tricky negotiations and alliances in a run-off vote. And that gives Soro the outside candidate fresh hope for the top job.