OP-ED

Côte d’Ivoire’s democracy in the balance as hotly contested elections loom

By David Kode 2 September 2020

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara speaks to the media after submitting his application for the October presidential election at the Independent Electoral Commission in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 24 August 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Legnan Koula)

With two months to go before elections in Côte d’Ivoire, the priority is to ensure that there is an enabling environment for campaigns and rallies to be held without violence. If not adequately addressed, the intense rivalry between party leaders and their supporters may degenerate into violence and instability.

The confirmation by Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Dramane Ouattara that he will stand for an unconstitutionally mandated third term in office does not come as a surprise to many, given the fact that he had hinted in the recent past that he may stand again. 

However, his decision seriously threatens democracy, human rights and the stability of Côte d’Ivoire and the region. 

It also means that no president in Côte d’Ivoire’s history has agreed to cede power peacefully once their mandate ended. It is like a fiction movie being played over again, and the circumstances around elections, the constitution and the transfer of power, are all too familiar for millions of Ivorians. 

For some in the international community, who were optimistic about the sustainability of Côte d’Ivoire’s democracy when Ouattara took power in 2011 after a decade-long war, there is a realisation that the opportunity to break the cycle of instability and insecurity during elections may be lost. 

Ouattara has joined the ranks of former presidents Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo who, ahead of elections, used all means at their disposal to hang on to power. In each instance, the effect was political instability, violence and conflict.

To understand this trend, it is prudent to take a look at the context in which elections are organised; the role of the constitution, and the polarisation of politics caused by ethnic sensitivities that were the root cause of political instability and conflict from the late 1990s. 

The ethnic sensitivities in question were used to disenfranchise Ouattara, then a leader of the political opposition, and members of his party for close to two decades after multiparty politics was introduced in the early 1990s. 

Former Ivorian President Henri Konan Bedie and president of the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) submit the application for the October presidential election at the Independent Electoral Commission in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 27 August 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Legnan Koula)

President Ouattara hails from the Dioula ethnic group from the north of Côte d’Ivoire, and the historiography of the country shows many Ivorians from the north are known to have migrated from other West African countries in the immediate post-independence period, during the economic boom caused by the lucrative production of and trade in cocoa and coffee.

So this ethnic framing was used as a political tool by former president Henri Konan Bédié and ‘legitimised’ under a policy known as “Ivoirite”, which sought to make a distinction between those considered as “genuine” Ivorians and those who “were not”. 

It was invoked at crucial periods, like in elections to disenfranchise Ouattara, and sidelined many from his Dioula ethnic group from political processes. The wanton application of the concept of “Ivoirite” was the cause of political instability in 1999 and the decade-long conflict that split the country in two. 

When Ouattara took over as president in 2011, he made it a point to repeal clauses in the Ivorian Constitution that legitimised “Ivoirite”, and successfully accomplished that in a referendum in 2016. While that discriminatory clause was annulled, it is useful to point out that Ivorian politics is highly polarised. 

In broad terms, the constitution gives enormous control of executive power and economic resources to the president and his close collaborators. Because affiliation to political parties is driven by regional and ethnic considerations, and not necessarily by ideology, those who lose elections – and members of their ethnic groups – are often afraid of being excluded from participating in high-level political processes and economic opportunities. Hence the reason why elections are so highly contested and why incumbents so desperately hang on to power.

This appetite for control now plays out vividly ahead of the October elections. This is also exemplified by the fact that among those currently vying for the presidency, there are four main contenders leading the largest political parties. Out of these four, three have been presidents before. 

So the battle for the presidency is also a battle between political foes who represent specific regions or ethnic groups, and winning the ballot can be translated to mean having near-total control of decision-making processes at all levels, and economic power. 

While former presidents used the ethnic card ostensibly to exclude political opponents from participating in elections, Ouattara has been accused of using the judiciary to sideline his opponents, restrict peaceful protests and target journalists to silence critical voices. 

In late 2019, the Ivorian authorities issued an arrest warrant for one of the leaders of the political opposition, Guillaume Soro, soon after he (Soro) announced he would contest the next elections. Nineteen members of Soro’s political family were jailed and Soro himself was sentenced to 20 years in prison in April 2020.

The authorities have particularly targeted public gatherings in the months leading to elections. A new criminal code was adopted last year which criminalises what the authorities call “undeclared or banned protests”. 

Members of the civil society group Les Indignés were arrested for planning a sit-in at the headquarters of the Independent Electoral Commission as they expressed concerns about the implementation of reforms to the electoral institution. We expect to see more of these restrictions in the coming weeks.

With two months to go before elections, the priority now should be to ensure there is an enabling environment for political campaigns and rallies to be held without violence – especially given the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

If not adequately addressed, the intense rivalry between party leaders and their supporters may degenerate into violence and instability before and after the poll.

An upsurge of violence in Côte d’Ivoire could potentially exacerbate further instability in West Africa, given the precarious situation in the Sahel. The cost of another conflict will be too high even for the different political actors, and especially for the population. 

As was the case during the post-election violence in 2010 and 2011, the political actors in Côte d’Ivoire are unable – or perhaps even unwilling – to resolve their differences themselves. During the 2010 elections and the violence that followed, the African Union and the European Union were instrumental in monitoring electoral processes and in holding dialogues with different political formations. 

A similar role for these two organisations in the current context may prevent a descent into violence. Urgent talks are needed between the different factions, the Electoral Commission, and the African Union’s Panel of the Wise, with support from the European Union – and Ecowas should facilitate these conversations. 

The leading political parties should commit to reigning in their supporters to avoid a violent response ahead of and after the elections. 

President Ouattara should be held accountable for human rights violations and any violent response to peaceful demonstrations, and commit to forging an enabling environment for the elections. 

Any eruption of violence after the elections will increase levels of insecurity in the region. If this happens, West African leaders and the African Union will have a far bigger challenge on their hands. The time for them to act is now. DM

David Kode is Advocacy and Campaigns Lead with Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

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