As Côte d’Ivoire prepares for presidential elections scheduled for 31 October, political divisions are coming to a head, accompanied by a spate of deadly violence following President Alassane Ouattara’s declaration of running for third term.
There’s also 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, lead by France, to delay the elections to minimise any further violence and facilitate dialogue among political parties. Opposition groups also want the vote postponed and a transition government installed until the dispute is settled.
The opposition organised a major meeting in Abidjan on Saturday, 10 October, with the goal of banding together to block Ouattara’s presidential bid.
With just a little over three weeks to go before citizens cast their vote, Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election has never seemed so uncertain. Although Kouadio Konan Bertin (KKB) still intends to stand for election, Henri Konan Bédié and Pascal Affi N’Guessan have expressed reservations about participating.
Like the rest of the opposition, the presidents of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and one of the two wings of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) continue to demand, as a prerequisite to their participation in the upcoming election, that Ouattara withdraw his candidacy for a third term and that the institutions involved in the electoral process – the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) and the Constitutional Council – be dissolved.
The country’s constitution only allows for two presidential terms. But 78-year-old Ouattara has argued that since a new constitution was adopted in 2016, his two terms of office under the old constitution should not really be counted.
Ouattara, who has been in power for nearly a decade, decided to run for a third term after his chosen successor unexpectedly passed away.
Since he had previously promised not to run again for a third term, the political waters of Ivory Coast are suddenly that much more muddied following weeks of upheaval.
On Saturday, opposition leaders and their supporters joined forces in a united front at a rally of over 30,000 at the Felix Houphouet Boigny stadium in the capital Abidjan, against the sought and perceived unconstitutional third term of incumbent President Ouattara.
The event was seen as a major test for the opposition in finding consensus.
Yaho Ayo Frederick, a protestor at the rally was emphatic.
“We Ivorians are tired. We are tired. We want to get rid of Alassane. We don’t want him any more. That’s it. I am PDCI but today there is no PDCI. It’s Côte d’Ivoire that’s here. The young people are here. We are standing as if we are one, to say “no” to a third term of Alassane Dramane Ouattara.”
The country has not forgotten the 2011 crisis when Gbagbo refused to leave office after losing elections to Ouattara. The ensuing months-long violence claimed 3,000 lives.
Since mid-August, sporadic marches have been organised in several communities.
About 15 people were killed and several dozen others injured in the demonstrations, and a large number of activists arrested. Public demonstrations have since been banned.
At the rally, leader of the opposition, Bédié emphasised that “civil disobedience” is the watchword. Calls for strikes in the civil service and education and for blockades along certain trunk roads are expected to follow.
“The goal is to prevent the state from functioning wherever we are able to do so and to make it impossible to hold the election as long as Ouattara is on the ballot,” a person close to former president Laurent Gbagbo said.
Such a stance seems like an active boycott of the election, even though the opposition still refuses to use the term.
Everything but Ouattara
In the presence of several diplomats working in Abidjan, Bédié has, however, displayed a more combative stance, talking of the risk of a “civil war” if the election goes ahead under the current circumstances.
“The tone has been cranked up a notch,” said a Western diplomat.
The opposition coalition has set up a structure to coordinate their programme, with their main leaders, Bédié, Gbagbo and Guillaume Soro, regularly communicating with each other, but a number of disagreements persist about the form that it should take.
“PDCI doesn’t have a culture of street protests. They issue calls for protest but aren’t the first to get out into the fray. They dispatch supporters, but that isn’t enough,” said an FPI official.
For its part, the FPI continues to grapple with infighting. While N’Guessan has embraced the strategy adopted by the rest of the opposition, his sincerity has been called into question by some officials, convinced that he may do an about-face at the last minute.
N’Guessan’s strained relations with Gbagbo and his close Abidjan-based associates, including Assoa Adou, is another problem, reports Deutsche Welle. This could explain why the former prime minister was excluded from an opposition meeting held at PDCI’s headquarters on 20 September.
The situation with Simone Gbagbo also continues to fuel some tensions. Just as the former first lady was in the midst of carrying out a flurry of personal initiatives, former president Laurent Gbagbo was forced to get on his soapbox.
According to the Africa Report, he spoke on 15 September during an FPI central committee meeting – a first since his arrest on 11 April 2011.
“He told us to keep on fighting and that what is going on right now is just one part of the process and that internal strife needs to be set aside,” a person close to Gbagbo said.
“Our sole common denominator is our rejection of Ouattara,” an official from the opposition said.
“We are well aware that some coalition members will turn into our rivals before long. Everyone is getting ready for the post-2020 order. Soro and Goudé are competing for the top spot in a new generation of leadership. Simone wants to influence the FPI’s future direction, whether by taking over the party or giving someone else the job.”
The exclusion of key political figures from the presidential race who still enjoy the support of a large sections of Ivorians further diminishes prospects 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.
Côte d’Ivoire has come a long way. The ten-year relative stability it has enjoyed should not ignore 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 has put forward to back up his third term candidacy, is his resolve to preserve his hard-won legacy in the realm of peace and stability.
There are worrying signs, however, of Côte d’Ivoire’s political trajectory: increasing political tensions and social polarisation coupled with violent political discourses and deadly protests.
Free and air and election?
“Without the postponement of the vote, even a short one, the chances of a peaceful and democratic election are limited,” says Wendyam Hervé Lankoandé, a West Africa Fellow with a focus on Côte d’Ivoire at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
He notes that in the run up to the October 31 poll, opposition groups have demanded an audit of the voter list by international experts, the reform of the independent electoral commission, and the dissolution of the Constitutional Council.
And he adds that while the opposition has so far avoided pronouncing a boycott of the vote as part of their repertoire of electoral strategies, this might be inevitable.
“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.”
As political tensions mount, the political uncertainty is unnerving for many Ivorians who fear a repeat of the 2010 election violence.
Additional reporting by Deutsche Welle, AfricaNews and Africa Report.
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