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Côte d’Ivoire: Where is civil society ahead of the presidential election?

By Florence Richard, in Abidjan
Posted on Tuesday, 27 October 2020 12:44

A campaign billboard of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara is seen behind a burned bus in Abidjan
A campaign billboard of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara is seen behind a bus which was burned early in the morning by protesters against Ouattara's decision to stand for a third term, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast October 19, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Under-represented in public debate, Ivorian civil society hasn’t managed to project its voice much further during the electoral campaign, which is drawing to a close.

In August, Arsène Brice Bado tried to organise a debate in Abidjan on the constitutionality of the president’s bid for a third term of office. Côte d’Ivoire had been hit earlier with a wave of protests and violence following President Alassane Ouattara’s announcement of his plans to stand for election on 31 October, a candidacy the opposition viewed as anti-constitutional. He envisioned a gathering of experts where each participant would put forth technical arguments as a way “to understand the constitution and reflect on the issue without taking a partisan position.”

However, the political science researcher and vice president of Academic Affairs at the Jesuit-run Centre for Research and Action for Peace (CERAP) hit a wall. Each and every academic, law professor and expert he contacted declined his invitation. “They felt the issue was too sensitive,” he says.

‘It’s difficult to speak up’

“The simple act of initiating a debate is perceived as a form of protest. The environment has become so polarised that it’s difficult to speak up without being accused of belonging to one political side or another,” says Bado, who nevertheless believes that these types of informed discussions are essential. “Talking about divisive issues helps keep conflict in check,” he says. When this doesn’t happen, “resentment builds up and explodes.”

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Deadlock eleven days before the election

In recent days, fresh violence broke out in several cities around the country – including in Dabou, 50 kilometres west of Abidjan, where at least 16 people died – as the opposition coalition called on its supporters to “prevent any operation linked to the ballot from being held” and “carry out an active boycott by all legal means.”

Ivorian civil society has always been under-represented in public debate. This is even truer today as a major election nears. In the words of the sociologist Rodrigue Koné: “If you look at the main organisations, you’ll notice that all of them were created during tense periods of the country’s history. The Ivorian Human Rights League [LIDHO] was formed in 1990; the Ivorian Human Rights Movement [MIDH] in 2000; and Action for the Protection of Human Rights [APDH] in 2004. These groups were offshoots of political strategies and became instruments of political discourse. Since they don’t make much of an effort to set themselves apart from one another and be visible during crisis-free periods, they’ve lost their credibility.”

For Bado, “civil society is politically divided. Some organisations have close ties with the current government, while others with the opposition. Some say as much, while others reject this description. People see everything through a political lens today.”

New voices on the rise

On social media, amid a slew of anonymous and at times emphatic supporters, a few new voices are making themselves heard. The writer Gauz is part of this cohort of voices who regularly express themselves without a filter. He makes no secret of his anti-Ouattara positions but claims no allegiance to a political party.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara kicks off an atypical presidential campaign

Recently, he published a post on his Twitter account (followed by more than 7,000 users) calling for government policies that better take into account issues facing the culture sector. He is disappointed to hear so little from his fellow citizens with just a few days to go before the presidential election and annoyed by the lack of individual “drive”.

However, he says he understands the fears of those who don’t want to relive “the trauma of 2011” and doesn’t hurl criticism at artists who choose to join a party.

As for the musicians who perform during political events, he says: “When you work for a party, you’re paid on time and in cash. In what other context could they perform and make a living off their music? It isn’t possible!”

From intimidation to self-censorship

Public demonstrations have been banned by an order dated 16 March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ban has been maintained due to concerns over election-related unrest. Several organisations, calling the measure “arbitrary”, denounced it during a press conference in which they described it as “restricting the civic space”.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Can Ouattara break into this opposition bastion?

One such group is Tournons la Page, a non-political grassroots movement advocating democratic transfers of power and good governance in Africa – very active in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Senegal. The movement has adapted to the situation. Unable to organise rallies, its members are instead going to neighbourhoods to meet with residents in small groups.

Their objective is to “explain the context and what’s at stake”, says the movement’s coordinator in Côte d’Ivoire, Alexandre Amani. The activist says he has come under pressure and been threatened on several occasions. He was arrested on 11 March along with ten other members of the organisation while they were handing out anti-constitutional amendment flyers. “We were arrested, but in a normal way. It didn’t scare us. However, we are worried about being targeted by militias or ‘microbes’.”

In August, another activist, Pulchérie Gbalet, who leads the opposition-linked group Alternative Citoyenne Ivoirienne (ACI), which called on supporters to protest Ouattara’s third term, was arrested. Charged with “inciting a riot and calling for insurrection”, she was detained. Ever since, Gbalet has become the face of Côte d’Ivoire’s civil society, which feels it is being silenced.

“This fear of voicing one’s opinion definitely goes back to the memory of the post-election crisis. Under Laurent Gbagbo’s regime, freedom of expression was muzzled,” says Sidi Tiémoko Touré, minister of communications and media and government spokesperson.

“The constitution adopted in 2016 by Ouattara enshrines diversity and freedom of expression. There’s no environment where you’re forbidden to talk about something,” he adds.

“Prohibiting demonstrations is one thing, but the problem goes deeper. Self-censorship is occurring, and going strong. It’s a reality,” says Bado.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: How much influence does Soro exert despite his exile?

His observation is shared by an Ivorian women’s rights activist who asked that her name be withheld: “Those who want to speak up don’t because the climate is off-putting. It’s subtle, even insidious. We could complain about it and say we’re not allowed to speak out, but we don’t.”

She also says that Ivorians have developed the art of mockery in response to this culture. “We approach issues with humour but, deep down, we’re afraid.”

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