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Côte d’Ivoire: Can the opposition FPI unite?

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Monday, 11 January 2021 11:01

Assoa Adou in Abidjan, January 15, 2019 © ISSAM ZEJLY for The Africa Report

Assoa Adou, the secretary general of the pro-Gbagbo branch of the FPI, visited Pascal Affi N'Guessan on 4 January. A sign of reconciliation between the former president and the man he long considered a traitor, which could manifest itself at the ballot box during the legislative elections.

The move was primarily intended to be symbolic, but it demonstrates that the two old rivals of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) have come a long way.

On Monday 4 January, Assoa Adou, the secretary general of the pro-Gbagbo branch of the party, accompanied by a delegation, visited Pascal Affi N’Guessan at his home in the Riviera district of Abidjan. Since their struggle for leadership of the FPI, Adou hasn’t visited N’Guessan in his family home.

Five days earlier, N’Guessan had been released and placed under judicial supervision, after almost two months of pre-trial detention. Prosecuted on numerous charges, the former prime minister is accused of calling for civil disobedience and the creation of a very short-lived National Transitional Council (CNT) after the contested re-election of Alassane Ouattara on 31 October.

A sign of thaw

Officially, Adou and his staff made the trip to show their “compassion” and solidarity with N’Guessan after his imprisonment. However, many also saw this visit as a new sign of reconciliation between Laurent Gbagbo and the man he has long considered a traitor.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire presidential election: Opposition threatens boycott

“Some time ago, we didn’t even greet each other. So today, when we go to his house, it will certainly be seen as a sign of thaw,” said Franck Anderson Kouassi, spokesman for the pro-Gbagbo FPI. “It was not an insignificant visit, never has GOR [“Gbagbo or nothing”] taken such a step towards us,” says one of N’Guessan’s close colleagues. “It should be seen as a political gesture, which bodes well for a rapprochement between our two camps.”

Immediately after his release, Gbagbo had called his former minister to get in touch with him and announce that he was sending a delegation led by Adou. The relationship between the two men, icy since the schism that tore the party apart in 2014, has improved in recent months in their joint struggle against Ouattara’s third term.

N’Guessan, one of the few presidential nominees whose candidacy was validated by the Constitutional Council in mid-September, had quickly joined the call for civil disobedience launched by Henri Konan Bédié, the president and candidate of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). By his side, in consultation with Gbagbo, he had taken a hard line on Ouattara’s “treason.”

The two men then refused to participate in the election and called for an active boycott. N’Guessan, who became spokesman for the opposition platform and then for the CNT, was finally arrested on 6 November while trying to reach his stronghold of Bongouanou in Moronou.

The end of a decade-long boycott

In these uncertain times, the officially recognised president of the FPI, whom his opponents suspected just a few months ago of playing “useful opponents”, has imposed himself as one of the figures of the opposition. His two months in detention have only increased his aura, making him a symbol of the regime’s repression.

READ MORE Pascal Affi N’Guessan: “The wall that separated me from President Gbagbo has been broken.”

Now free, N’Guessan, 67, intends to make this new political capital bear fruit by setting his sights on the 2025 presidential race. Before that however, he will have to take several important steps, starting with the next legislative elections, scheduled for 6 March. The “legal” FPI intends to take part in them.

Its president will himself be a candidate for re-election for his constituency in the sub-prefecture of Bongouanou. The pro-Gbagbo FPI has also announced its intention to participate. This signals the end of a decade-long boycott and the great return of Gbagbo’s supporters in the Ivorian political sphere.

This shared desire to take part in the legislative elections could, in the coming days, bring the two branches of the FPI even closer together. In concrete terms, Gbagbo and N’Guessan are considering submitting joint lists – even with the PDCI and the other opposition parties, in order to present only one candidate to run against Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP, presidential party).

“We have no choice but to reach an agreement with GOR if we don’t want to fail,” N’Guessan’s entourage said. Behind the scenes, discussions have already started. On 5 January, after the reception of Adou’s delegation, a buffet was organised at the newly released opponent’s home. In between mouthfuls of cake, the lieutenants of the two camps discussed their potential rapprochement in view of the legislative elections.

Back in the game

For the pro-Gbagbo side, it would serve as the occasion to reclaim the official label of the FPI and to finally get back in the game. After ten years of boycotting national and local elections, many of Mama’s “Woody” lieutenants no longer want – or can – let their mandates slip away and compromise their future. As for N’Guessan and his supporters, they appreciate the pro-Gbagbo side’s great popularity with the electorate. They haven’t forgotten the FPI’s poor performance during the 2015 legislative elections when they only managed to hold onto three seats in parliament.

For his part, Gbagbo, still in Brussels awaiting the end of his proceedings before the International Criminal Court (ICC), wants to return to Abidjan as soon as possible. Although he has recovered his passport, he is now waiting for permission to travel from the Ivorian authorities.

Negotiations are ongoing and various envoys continue to commute between the banks of the Ebrié lagoon and the Belgian capital. The Prime Minister, Hamed Bakayoko, is notably at the helm. On 6 January, he received Adou at his office to discuss the fate of the former president.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, in ‘semi-freedom’, revives his old party

“All this only serves to save time,” says a close colleague of the former president. “In truth, Ouattara has no desire to see Gbagbo return. Everything is a question of balance of power. When he has no other choice, Ouattara will eventually let him return to Cote d’Ivoire.”

For Gbagbo, an increased understanding with N’Guessan in view of the legislative elections would have a double advantage: the opportunity of weighing in again on the political scene and showing his “good faith” by playing the democratic game.

Now, as someone close to Ouattara recalls, one of the conditions for the former president to be able to return is to let his troops participate in the next elections while keeping himself at a distance.

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