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Election Jitters and Uncertainties in Cote D’Ivoire

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Ivorians are preparing for next year’s electoral deadline. The same actors from 2010 could again be competing. What can be expected? Will the country face another upheaval such as 2010 when post-electoral violence caused the deaths of over 3000 people?
Four years ago, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara cruised through an easy re-election without much opposition. He was in partnership with former President Konan Bédié, the leader of the PDCI (Parti Démocratique de la Cote d’Ivoire) the former ruling party under Houphouet Boigny, the founding father. Ouattara also enjoyed the full support of Soro Guillaume, the President of the national assembly and former head of the Nouvelles Forces, the rebel army that tried to overthrow Laurent Gbagbo in 2002 before settling for a share in a national unity government. Laurent Gbagbo who had lost against him in 2010 was awaiting trial in a jail cell at The Hague for crimes committed against humanity during the post-electoral violence. However, 11 months to the next presidential elections, everything has changed, and for Ouattara, the exit from power might prove as challenging as his ascend to it.

The second term of Ouattara began with Soro still as President of the national assembly. Soro began his political career as a student leader and a disciple of Laurent Gbagbo. After they broke up, Soro went to school in Europe before reappearing as head of the Nouvelles Forces who, with the help of the French forces, forced Gbagbo out of power and sent him to the Hague.

Soro however lost the comfort of his position, both as President of the National Assembly and constitutional heir. A new constitution passed by Ouattara changed the succession clause in favor of a Vice President, a new position currently held by a former strong ally and the only Prime Minister of Bédié for 6 years, Daniel Kablan Duncan. Soro also lost his “moral” authority over the military, whose leadership sprung mainly from his Nouvelles Forces, when his nemesis Ahmed Bakayoko, one Ouattara’s closest lieutenant was appointed Minister of Defense. Soro has joined Gbagbo and Bédié in the opposition and intends to run for president in 2020.

The alliance with Bédié broke down because of a dispute about who should field the “houphouetist” candidate come 2020. Bédié argued that there was an agreement that his fringe of the loose coalition he and Ouattara had formed, self-styled Rassemblement des Houphouetists pour la Démocratie et la Paix, (RHDP), the PDCI, would nominate a candidate. Ouattara countered that there was never such a deal and proposed a primary system. In 1993, at the death of Houphouet Boigny, and suspecting that then Prime Minister Ouattara wanted to usurp power, Bédié walked into the studios of the national television station and interrupted a newscast to declare himself President. From then on, the two men fell into enmity. In 1995, he managed to exclude Ouattara from the elections by enacting citizenship laws based on an ethnicity called “Ivoirité” which tended to separate “real Ivorians” from “strangers.” This policy targeted mostly people from the Muslim North where Mr. Ouattara hails from.` Bédié has started to dust-off his “ivoirité” discourse albeit very subtly, dog-whistling about “strangers” and Muslims. Ouattara kept the name RHDP for his new coalition.

Gbagbo was released from prison by the ICC and has been in transit for months in Brussels, awaiting appeals from the prosecution. He could go back home a free man or back to jail. For now, he has been holding talks with both Bédié and Soro, while trying to regain control of his once powerful Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) more fragmented than ever. His ex-wife Simone Gbagbo -freed by Ouattara last year- and his former VP Affi N’Guessan are competing for leadership. His youth leader and jail mate Blé Goudé – also freed by the ICC – has now embarked on a path of his own and could carry with him the radical and youth wing of the party. In the mid-1990s, after Ouattara was sidelined by Bédié, he and Gbagbo formed an alliance. In 2001, the military leader who had overthrown Bédié called elections under the “ivoirité” constitution, which again excluded Ouattara. General Robert Guei claimed to have won the elections, but Gbagbo mobilized his supporters and pushed him out. Once in power, Gbagbo went on to enforce land tenure policies based on Bédié’s “ivoirité’, causing many northerners to lose farmlands they exploited for generations.

Ouattara has linked his decision to run again to the fate of his former opponents. The FPI recently accused him of wrongfully trying to insert itself in the Gbagbo’s appeal case, trying to keep him from returning home, not until after elections.

The new constitution – revised during his second term – gives him the right to do so. He faces the same dilemma Abdoulaye Wade faced a few years ago in Senegal. Having the legal right to contest elections does not mean the electorate is ready.

The contest next year, will indicate whether the country’s democracy has matured and signal the end of the deadly rivalries and divisive policies of the past two decades.If he decides to seek another term, Ouattara will face not only a three-headed opposition but also Ivorians who may have no appetite for a repeat of 2010.

Bédié, Gbagbo and Ouattara spent the 1990s fighting over Houphouet’s legacy. Each of them served as President. But both Bédié and Gbagbo argue that they were not allowed to govern fully because of the 1999 military coup (Bédié) and the 2002 rebellion (Gbagbo). Now in their twilight, they want to make up for their loss or extend a legacy. At what price for Côte d’Ivoire and the region? In the current ethnic configuration of the electorate, no single party could win the election outright in the first round, however a second round will favor Ouattara.

Like everywhere on the continent, ethnicity plays an important role in politics. In Ivory Coast, the electoral map follows well-defined lines. The north is easily be considered Ouattara’s bastion. With 42 percent of the population, the Muslims strongly identify with Ouattara and provide a solid electoral base. His party has co-opted members of other groups that were victimized by the policies of “ivoirité” of Bédié and enforced by Gbagbo. The center of the country – the Akan/Baoulé area- is Bédié’s stronghold, with 15 to 20 percent of the population. The Southwest – the Kru/ Bété – follows “their son” Gbagbo. The district of Abidjan is the elephant meat, with more than 4 million people, where everyone has a piece. Ethnic rivalries and alliances run deep and were further exacerbated by the conflicts.

Founding father Felix Houphouet-Boigny was Baoulé, like Bédié. He cultivated strong bonds with the Muslims northerners as well as with other ethnic groups. Long before independence, Boigny had problems with the Kru-Bété. Gbagbo came from that line of ethnic opposition that runs deep between Akan and Kru. Bédié may go into an alliance with Gbagbo but can he bring along the rest of the Akan? Same problem with Soro. He may take some votes from Ouattara in the first round, but in a second-round northerners may not follow him to vote Gbagbo or Bédié.

With the advantages of incumbency, a strong regional and ethnic support, with Gbagbo battling legal issues and trying to regain control of his party, Bédié straddled with age and a shaky divisive past, and Soro who will have challenges to shake away his warlord moniker, Ouattara could easily see the finish line.However, is the Ivorian electorate ready for an “Old Folks Warfare” that could ignite old rivalries and risk plunging the country and the entire region into uncertainty? Each of these leaders groomed very capable and battle-ready lieutenants who can take the nation forward, into a new era.

The wounds of 2010 are still fresh. Notwithstanding its economic success, the Ouattara administration has faced challenges in the area of national reconciliation, full demobilization and reintegration of war combatants as well as the restructuring of state security apparatus.In 2020, Ouattara will be the first Ivorian democratically elected president to turn the country over to another democratically elected president and retire gracefully. If he so desires.

This human billboard standing in the street with the national television in the background epitomizes the anxieties of the population. It says: If we are sheep, in 2020 we will take up guns and kill each other.” On social media, another message says: “Whey are we killing ourselves for people we only see on television?” (courtesy Fraternité Matin.)Abdoulaye W Dukulé

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