It is midday in Yamoussoukro.
A visibly emotional Alassane Ouattara leaves the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny Foundation. His followers look on, incredulous.
The Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, the President of the National Assembly Amadou Soumahoro, and Minister Kandia Camara’s eyes are misty.
Further down, a member of parliament is crying her eyes out.
The Ivorian head of state loves surprises, saying one thing and then doing the opposite. By announcing on 5 March, before the parliamentarians gathered in Congress, that he would not run in the presidential election of October 2020, he has taken everyone by surprise.
Only a handful of his followers knew what he was planning as he made his entrance into the Foundation’s amphitheatre. His wife, Dominique, preceded him, surrounded by Vice-President Daniel Kablan Duncan, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, and the Minister of Defence Hamed Bakayoko.
Matured decision, hurried schedule
At the podium, Alassane Ouattara summed up his nine years as president and told the audience, “During the two terms you have entrusted me with the leadership of our beautiful country, I have always attached particular importance to honouring my commitments. In the same spirit, I had indicated on several occasions, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution of the Third Republic in 2016, that I did not wish to run for another presidential term. Accordingly, I would like to solemnly announce that I have decided not to stand as a candidate in the presidential election of 2020.”
Initially, he planned to make the decision in July, then decided to bring forward his schedule.
“The option had been on the table for several weeks. It really took shape at the last African Union summit in early February in Addis Ababa, and then during his stay in France on 14 February,” one of his relatives explained.
During that visit to the French capital to inaugurate the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Library of the French Academy of Overseas Sciences, Ouattara looked tired. Many asked, is it time to hand over the reins?
He informed his first circle a few days later of his decision, and it was met with different reactions.
Some wish he would wait a little longer, at least until the International Criminal Court (ICC) decides on the conditions of Laurent Gbagbo’s parole. Others plead for him to run in 2020, even if it means then retiring after one or two years. There is nothing to stop this.
Respecting the rules
Despite the doubt surrounding his intentions, he finally decided to keep his word — especially to the French government — and skilfully turned an announcement that had been taken for granted at the beginning of his second term of office, into a historic speech.
“He has always wanted to appear in the eyes of certain African heads of state and the international community as someone who respects the rules,” said one of his old friends. “It was unthinkable for him to take the risk that his candidacy would trigger violence, and one day he’d find himself like Blaise Compaoré, forced into exile by the French army.”
Does Ouattara’s announcement influence the choice of Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo? While it is now certain that the former wants to launch into the race for the top position, the intentions of the latter remain uncertain.
“The president believes that this is the best way to dissuade them from taking the plunge,” his entourage explained. “They will now appear out of touch, even within their own party.”
Who will run for the RHDP?
The announcement is expected to shake up the schedule of the Rally of the Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). This coalition, which would not have seen the light of day without the determination of Alassane Ouattara, and of which he intends to remain president after the election, was planning to launch the process of nominating its candidate soon.
The candidate could be named as early as the end of March or the beginning of April. “We don’t want to condition our choice on the choice of the opposition,” said a party leader. “This will allow our candidate to have enough leeway.”
Has Alassane Ouattara’s announcement succeed in preventing the battle of succession?
He recently received several potential candidates to ask them to stay united. Though Albert Toikeusse Mabri and Marcel Amon-Tanoh have made clear their ambitions, the favourite of the president has been known for many months: Amadou Gon Coulibaly.
In the Prime Minister’s entourage, it is said that Alassane Ouattara made this clear to his relatives at the beginning of March.
“I wish to leave the hand to a team and I propose that Amadou be the leader,” he is reported to have said.
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