Côte d’Ivoire: One too many rounds for Alassane Ouattara?

By Vincent Duhem, in Abidjan
Posted on Wednesday, 16 September 2020 08:03

Ivory Coast's Ouattara to submit application to run for third term
Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara speaks to the media after submitting the application for October presidential election at the Independent Electoral Commission in Abidjan, Ivory Coast August 24, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Has Alassane Ouattara destroyed what would have been a clean exit? With two months to go until the presidential election, his bid for a third term has intensified debate.

A politician’s fate can shift based on a mere decision, action or speech. Alassane Ouattara (ADO) could have become the first Ivorian head of state to have set in motion a peaceful transition of power. And observers could have calmly analysed the track record of his two consecutive terms in office, as a prelude to the election of his successor, whoever that could have been.

Observers would have then hailed his decision to not stand for re-election and put the spotlight on the strengths and weaknesses of his presidency, as well as the assets passed down to a nation rebuilding after a decade of politico-military crises and the major projects yet to be completed.

At the helm of his foundation working to fight climate change and promote good governance, ADO, for his part, would have made the rounds of international conferences and played the role of the wise party during continental mediation efforts.

However, his decision to run for a third term of office – made after Amadou Gon Coulibaly, his prime minister and hand-picked successor under the banner of the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), died unexpectedly on 8 July – has upended everything.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire’s Ouattara announces third term bid in October vote

“Whatever the scenario, his image will be damaged in the years ahead. Isn’t this one round too many?” says Arthur Banga, a professor and researcher at Abidjan’s Félix-Houphouët-Boigny University, who, like many observers, is worried that the head of state’s decision to stand for re-election will invite a resurgence of violence.

Beyond driving heated debate over its constitutional legality, his bid for a third term is dividing the people of Côte d’Ivoire. “The election will unfold without a hitch. If he loses, Ouattara will leave office just as Abdoulaye Wade did in Senegal in 2012,” says a source close to the president.

Nevertheless, his candidacy – the way in which it was orchestrated and then announced during an address to the nation, on 6 August, on the eve of the country’s national holiday – is also symbolic of a way of governing: a desire to control everything, a feeling of being essential, a reluctance to invite input and a certain ambiguity between the party and the state.

READ MORE African presidents extending terms: ‘Let’s express our disapproval loud and clear’

After a first wave of protest movements reportedly killed around 10 people on 13 August, ADO prohibited any form of public demonstration through 15 September.

Tangible results

When ADO took office in April 2011, after 20 years of political struggle, expectations were very high. His respectable track record at the IMF and the Central Bank of West African States was reassuring. What’s more, he did a good job in his first term. Benefitting from a strong political bloc, a virtually non-existent opposition and the backing of outside partners, Ouattara managed to get the economy back on track and restore security countrywide.

“Fast growth and sound public finance management helped Côte d’Ivoire gain significant access to international markets, which facilitated the financing of major projects,” a businessman says. Based on these tangible – and generally well-received – results, the head of state was very easily elected to a second term in 2015. At the time, he made “the new Ivorian” his main campaign theme, promising to focus his efforts on transforming the economy, improving the lives of young people and women, fighting corruption and promoting reconciliation.

Nevertheless, the first year of his second term was devoted to implementing a new constitution, which led to renewed political and social tensions. The year 2017 was marked by army mutinies, civil servant strikes, a cocoa sector crisis and tensions within the ruling RHDP coalition. These challenges highlighted some shortcomings in the president’s leadership.

‘Stay in power by any means necessary’

“Ouattara built his crisis recovery strategy around an almost mystical belief in the transformative power of the neoliberal economy, but this deep-seated belief has shown its limitations,” wrote the sociologist Francis Akindès in the December 2017 issue of the academic journal Politique africaine.

“Triumphant rhetoric about economic performance contrasts with the re-emergence of unresolved problems and the denunciation of political corruption,” added Akindès. “In a country where there is a growing collective desire to bring about a qualitative change in living standards, for how much longer can we continue to tolerate the rise in social, political and economic inequalities?”

READ MORE Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire taste success in raising price of cocoa

In parallel, the political alliance he erected has been breaking down. Henri Konan Bédié’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) was the first entity to distance itself, followed by several important figures from ADO’s apparatus, including Guillaume Soro, Marcel Amon-Tanoh and Daniel Kablan Duncan, who resigned from his post as vice president in July.

Gradually falling back on his inner circle, ADO the economist slowly shifted his role, becoming party leader while using a carrot and stick approach to try to impose his views. In recent years, many PDCI officials and people close to Soro have been sacked from their positions in the administration. The convictions Soro, Charles Blé Goudé and former president Laurent Gbagbo have been slapped with have also reinforced the sense that justice under Ouattara is one-sided and has failed to demonstrate its independence.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara makes ex-president Laurent Gbagbo an offer

For the political analyst Gilles Yabi, founder of the think tank Wathi, “ADO’s second term was also marked by a desire to stay in power by any means necessary. It’s symptomatic of a certain way of governing. You take significant risks when political power is critical for access to economic opportunities. Political actors are prepared to go to any length to remain in power when this is the case.”

This sort of behaviour is hardly new, but it’s a pattern that Ouattara has not been able to correct. “Every government action – further infrastructure work, anti-poverty measures, etc. – has been drowned out by political intrigues,” says a source close to Ouattara who criticises the opposition for never having adopted a truly constructive approach.

It’s in an environment marked by a high amount of antagonism that the presidential election is getting under way – an election fraught with danger which, 10 years after the post-election crisis came to an end, is currently weighing on the minds of leaders from Ouagadougou to Paris, not to mention Dakar, Accra, Bamako and Abuja.

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