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Côte d’Ivoire: ‘There are worrying signs of its political trajectory’

By Anne-Marie Bissada
Posted on Monday, 5 October 2020 19:53, updated on Tuesday, 6 October 2020 09:27

Ivory Coast braces for possible further protests over voter rolls
Supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo, after he was barred from participating in the October presidential election in Abidjan, Ivory Coast August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

As Côte d'Ivoire prepares itself for presidential elections slated for 31 October, political divisions are coming to a head as deadly violence has erupted following President Ouattara's declaration of running for third term, and fears about a fair election after 40 out of 44 candidates were rejected by the Constitutional Council.

Ahead of the polls, there have been calls, such as from France, to delay the elections to minimise any further violence and facilitate dialogue with the opposition.

But that has been refused by Ouattara.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire/France: Ouattara refuses Macron’s request to delay polls

Following from that lead, the International Crisis Group has published a report entitled: Côte d’Ivoire: delay for dialogue (‘Côte d’Ivoire : reporter pour dialoguer’).

To get a better overview of the upcoming elections and what options are viably available, The Africa Report spoke to Wendyam Hervé Lankoandé, a West Africa Fellow with a focus on Côte d’Ivoire at the International Crisis Group.

TAR: The African Court of human rights has ruled that Côte d’Ivoire must reinstate both former president Laurent Gbagbo and former prime minister Guillaume Soro. How binding is their ruling to the Ivorian state?

Wendyam Hervé Lankoandé: Both former president Laurent Gbagbo and Guillaume Soro,  seized the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights after the Constitutional Council rejected their candidacies for presidency on account of their criminal convictions by the Ivorian judiciary.

The African Court of human rights’ rulings are binding, but on multiple occasions, the Ivorian state, which has taken them as an encroachment on its sovereignty, and already announced its withdrawal from the declaration of jurisdiction provided for in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, highlighted it was not contemplating their enforcement.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo to be reinstated for polls says African human rights court

Even if the continental Court was willing to enforce its rulings, its room for manœuvre is limited. Any sanction regime on Côte d’Ivoire would need to be endorsed by the African Union’s conference of heads of state and government. So far, none of the states that withdrew from the protocol were sanctioned and Côte d’Ivoire will be no exception.

Beyond the legal aspect of this case, the Ivorian state is playing its reputation and diplomatic credentials. Pulling out from the Court’s protocol will not prevent Ouattara’s opponents from making use of its rulings in any future political dialogue.

40 other candidates were rejected by the Constitutional Council. Is this setting the tone for things to come?

Out of the 44 candidacies submitted, the Constitutional Council only cleared four candidacies. Among the candidates authorised to compete in the forthcoming presidential race stand incumbent President Ouattara, former President Laurent Gbagbo, former prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, and Kouadio Konan Bertin (KKB), a PDCI dissident.

On the constitutionality of Ouattara’s candidacy, the Council agreed with the the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP), the ruling party’s argument following which the 2016 reform reset the counter of Ouattara’s presidential mandates to ‘zero’.

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

Ouattara’s opponents read the Constitutional Council’s decision as a wrong signal regarding their claim for an inclusive, and democratic vote. It has reinforced their perception that the country’s electoral institutions – namely the independent electoral commission and the Constitutional Council – are tailored to the president’s advantage. They have proceeded to demand the dissolution and reform of these institutions.

The exclusion of key political figures from the presidential race like Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo, who still enjoy the support of a large part of the 45% of Ivorians who gave him their vote in 2010, further delays any prospect of national reconciliation and social cohesion.

A large segment of Ivorian citizens consider that the ruling administration has resorted to the disenfranchisement of rival politicians through justice condemnations, a deeply rooted political practice that successive regimes in Côte d’Ivoire have been keen to perpetuate. The political opposition has been struggling to materialise a unified front against President Ouattara with the risk of the resurgence of the ‘Tout sauf Ouattara’ motto (Everything but Ouattara).

Since President Ouattara announced his go for a third mandate, violence has broken out. From the viewpoint of the ICG, are we likely to see a repeat of electoral violence that broke out in 2010/2011? What is being done (if anything) to ensure that this is not a repeated crisis?

Côte d’Ivoire has come a long way. The ten-year relative stability it has enjoyed should not leave out the decade of violent conflict that saw the fragmentation of the country into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south.

One of the arguments incumbent president Ouattara put forward to back up his third term candidacy pertains to the fact he remains resolved to preserve his hard-won legacy in the realm of peace and stability.

However, there are worrying signs of Côte d’Ivoire’s political trajectory: increasing political tensions and social polarisation coupled with violent political discourses.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Opposition parties take on Alassane Ouattara

If the October vote were to usher in another chapter of large-scale political violence in Côte d’Ivoire, it would build on existing sociopolitical fractures with the risks of deadly intercommunal clashes nationwide.

None of the reconciliation initiatives that the Ouattara administration undertook yielded tangible outcomes. For the Ouattara’s administration, if the economy performed well, reconciliation would come naturally. This liberal-oriented line of thought revealed its limits when last August anti-third term protests that officially resulted into sixteen deaths.

In August, President Ouattara instructed Hamed Bakayoko, his prime minister to initiate a dialogue that quickly lost momentum. The government has attempted to co-opt youth leaders and on several occasions admonished them to resist any political manipulation. The peace messages it has also been broadcasting to ensure a peaceful vote are easily diluted by hate speech on social media.

President Ouattara had vowed earlier this year not to make a run for a third time. But following the death of his PM Amadou Got Coulibaly, he has since rescinded on that promise. How much credibility has he lost? Does he still have much support in the country?

President Ouattara justified his U-turn due to the ‘cas de force majeure’ following the unexpected death on 8 July of Amadou Gon Coulibaly, his designated successor. He was keen to argue that his decision to re-enter the presidential race was a ‘real sacrifice’, having taken the pledge last March to leave power to a young generation. Reactions at the international were timid. The United Nations and major foreign powers like the United States released generic statements urging the Ivorian authorities to hold an inclusive presidential vote.

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

On the international level, President Ouattara will have to work hard to win back his credibility and reputation that have taken a bitter hit following his controversial third term candidacy. However, on the national level and within the RHDP, he remains the one who can maintain the party’s unity and discipline and challenge a political giant like former President Henri Konan Bédié at the ballot box.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire presidential polls: for Henri Konan Bédié, ‘age is an asset’

With political parties built on individuals, and voting displaying a clear ethno-regional pattern, Ouattara’s decision to make a run for a third time certainly polarizes the Ivorian society but will unlikely alter his supporters’ choices.

Looking ahead to the 31 October polls, what can be done to ensure it is indeed a fair and democratic election?

Without the postponement of the vote, even a short one, the chances of a peaceful and democratic election are limited. Prior to going to the polls, the political opposition has demanded the audit of the voter list by international experts, the reform of the independent electoral commission, and the dissolution of the Constitutional Council.

The political opposition has excluded the boycott of the vote as part of their repertoire of electoral strategies. Yet, it may be the next logical step of the civil disobedience it recently called for. Instead of continuing with a vote that could roll back nearly all of the gains accrued under his administration, President Ouattara should consider the delaying of the vote.

It will mitigate the spectrum of contentious elections and pave the way for democratic stability and ultimately a lasting peace in Côte d’Ivoire.

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