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Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara’s 2020 challenges

By Olivier Monnier
Posted on Tuesday, 12 February 2019 09:08

In 2010, residents of Abobo protested en masse in support of Ouattara and against former President Laurent Gbagbo. In the ensuing tussle for power, pro-Gbagbo fighters shelled Abobo and opened fire on protestors there, killing dozens. Coulibaly explains that Abobo’s loyalty to Ouattara has been so steadfast because “we placed great hope in him. We expected him to build roads, asphalt streets and set up factories.” Côte d’Ivoire has so far seen little investment in public services, whilst almost half of the population live below the poverty line. “We hear about high rates of growth but here, we haven’t seen any of this,” Coulibaly says.

Dealing with discontent
Rumblings of discontent from voters is one of several growing pressures on Ouattara’s government to improve the country’s standard of living. Political uncertainties ahead of the 2020 election, combined with an encroaching terrorism threat spilling over from Niger and Burkina Faso, are exerting a strain on one of the region’s economic heavyweights. “Some investors are already getting more cautious. This is a shame because we’re still so far from the vote,” says an Ivorian business executive, who asks to remain anonymous.

As the world’s biggest cocoa producer, Côte d’Ivoire is the largest economy of the eight-nation bloc known as the Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (UEMOA). In 2018, the union’s growth reached 6.5%, well above the 2.7% average for sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, Ivorian growth hit almost 8%, the highest in the bloc.

UEMOA is dependent on Côte d’Ivoire, which accounts for more than 40% of the union’s GDP. Côte d’Ivoire is also home to an increasing number of international company and organisation headquarters, including the African Development Bank, and exports electricity to many of its neighbours, such as Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali.

Stability and peace required
Côte d’Ivoire’s continued economic success depends on a peaceful presidential election in 2020; if this happens, the IMF predicts that Côte d’Ivoire’s GDP will continue to grow around 7% annually over the next five years.

But the political alliances that have underpinned the country’s economic success are beginning to crumble. The 2020 election may see three of Côte d’Ivoire’s largest parties competing for the first time since 2010, says political analyst Arthur Banga. “It will be a widely open and highly uncertain vote,” he says. “It’s a good thing for democracy, but it’s obviously a risk for the country’s stability.”

Political schisms
The Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), founded by Laurent Gbagbo, was profoundly weakened in 2010 after Ouattara’s victory; in the last election, only three members were elected to the national assembly. But the party could re-emerge as a contender in 2020. Shock, joy and outrage rippled across the country in January 2019 when the International Criminal Court (ICC) acquitted Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity. In 2018, Ouattara had pardoned Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady and another important figure in the party, from a 20-year prison sentence for her role in the 2010 election violence. Laurent Gbagbo’s potential return to the country puts the leadership of the FPI into question.

As leader of the country’s most powerful party, the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR), Ouattara himself has pledged to step down in 2020 following the end of his two-term limit. But, he later told media that the new constitution allows him to run a third time, throwing the 2020’s election into further uncertainty. “I will only make a definitive decision then, based on the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. Stability and peace come before all else, including my principles,” he said.

The government is currently a coalition between two of the country’s largest political parties, Ouattara’s RDR and the Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), led by former President Henri Konan Bédié. But the alliance collapsed last year due to a falling out over whose candidate would represent the group in 2020.

Bédié has accused Ouattara on reneging on an agreement that the 2020 candidate would come from the PDCI’s ranks after his party backed Ouattara in 2010 and 2015. Ouattara has denied the existence of such a deal. Bédié, 84, has left the question of whether he intends to be his party’s candidate unanswered, telling media, “maybe yes, maybe no.”

Litmus test
The two parties used local elections in October 2018 as a litmus test for which party would emerge strongest in 2020. Although Ouattara’s party fared better, scoring victories in important seats, the results were disputed and pockets of protest broke out across the country, killing three people and leaving three injured after police used tear gas on protestors. The violence brings back painful memories of the 2010 election, which sparked into six months of intense conflict between supporters of Ouattara and Gbagbo, leaving some 3,000 people dead.

But the most pressing security threats are coming from outside the country. Since 2012, the Sahel has been facing an escalation of Islamist militants’ attacks, mostly originating from Mali. Violence has spilled over into Burkina Faso and Niger; these countries form part of the G5 Sahel military force which has been fighting to regain territory from Al Qaeda and Boko Haram since 2017.

Islamists’ long reach
In 2016, the violence reached Côte d’Ivoire when men affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb killed 22 people in the coastal city of Grand-Bassam, 15 kilometers from Abidjan. Côte d’Ivoire has since stepped up border security and launched the construction of a joint-terrorism training centre with France near Abidjan in 2018.

In the meantime, countries across the Sahel are struggling to finance the fight against terrorism; in 2019 the G5 Sahel launched an appeal to the international community to provide the €240m ($271m) promised to the force. The previous year, the IMF had warned that “persistent security problems in the region could weaken fiscal positions, reduce foreign direct investment and delay the implementation of major projects.”

Meanwhile at home, pressure is building on Ouattara to maintain Côte d’Ivoire’s reputation as one of West Africa’s biggest success stories. In 2018, the IMF said that economic growth has only resulted in a “modest” decline in poverty whilst a confidential report from an European Union mission in Côte d’Ivoire recently described the “spectacular enrichment” of the governing class. “The population is questioning more and more openly this (economic) growth which seems to bring them little to no benefits,” the report continued. In Abobo, where protests broke out at the news of Gbagbo’s acquittal of all charges by the ICC, residents are waiting to see if Ouattara can outrun the threats to the country’s stability.

Photo credits: Michel Euler/AP/SIPA

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