/ 24 August 2020

Alassane Ouattara: In the eye of Côte d’Ivoire’s perpetual succession crisis

Icoast Politics Vote Election
Supporters of Ivory Coast's president hold placards picturing Ouattara and reading "ADO" (for Alassane Dramane Ouattara) on October 9, 2015 in Yamoussoukro. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

Côte d’Ivoire’s 78-year old President Alassane Ouattara, who is due to step down following the October 31 election after serving consecutive five-year terms in office, announced on August 6 that he would again seek re-election. The Constitution limits presidents to two-terms. If he succeeds in his bid, Ouattara’s rule could last a total of 20 years. 

Ouattara’s decision, which he called a great personal sacrifice, is a mockery of the real sacrifices of his fellow Ivorians, often at the loss of life, for a united and democratic Côte d’Ivoire, and jeopardises some of the economic and democratic gains of the last decade.

He has also reneged on a solemn promise. 

Five months ago, during an address before Parliament on March 5, Ouattara pledged to step down at the end of his term and promised to transfer power to a younger generation. Days later, he tabbed ailing 61-year old Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as his dauphin and calmed growing fears among the opposition. Unfortunately, Coulibaly suddenly passed away on July 8. His death triggered a leadership vacuum within the ruling party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), that inspired Ouattara to volunteer as his own successor.

Public discontent followed immediately. Protests have erupted across the country for and against the decision. The police response has been violent, with at least four  fatalities, 104 injuries and 68 arrests, as the administration has also sought to prevent two key opposition leaders from entering the race. 

In contrast to the stream of strong statements from key actors, such as the Economic Community of Western African States, the African Union and the European Union, denouncing the coup d’état in Mali, the same actors have remained silent on Côte d’Ivoire. This is disappointing given how vulnerable the country remains to conflict and instability.

Perhaps no one better than Ouattara himself appreciates the fragile peace dividend that today tenuously holds Côte d’Ivoire together. His road to the presidency, which hearkens back to 1993, is singularly anchored in contention and acrimony. 

A University of Pennsylvania-trained economist, Ouattara had a stellar career in international finance, including the Central Bank of West African States and the International Monetary Fund. At home, he served in key government positions, including as minister of economy and finance and prime minister under the late Félix Houphouët-Boigny who governed the country for 33 years.

Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993 set off the first power struggle for the presidency between then prime minister Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié, the president of the national assembly. Bédié was the constitutionally designated interim successor to the deceased president. 

Two years later, in 1995, Bédié organised and won the election, and moved to consolidate his power. His party, the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), launched Ivoirité, a xenophobic, divisive identity campaign, which also targeted Ouattara. His PDCI’s detractors alleged that he was Burkinabé and did not qualify for public office and issued an arrest warrant for him. In 2000, a new constitution barred anyone not born of two Ivorian parents from seeking the presidency. The allegations effectively kept Ouattara out of the election that year. Instead, long time opposition figure Laurent Gbagbo was installed as president and led the country through what would become a tumultuous decade.

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest cocoa producer and a major exporter of coffee and palm oil, with important deposits of petroleum, diamond, and natural gas. Houphouët-Boigny had promoted a strong, welcoming immigration policy that made the country a beacon of political stability and economic strength in West Africa. 

Nearly a quarter of Côte d’Ivoire’s populations are immigrants. The tensions around citizenship and Ivoirité politics of exclusion, which dismissed Ouattara, also frustrated a key segment of society and contributed to the civil war in 2002. The conflict split the country in a north-south, Christian-Muslim divide.

Finally, in the 2010 election, through fits and starts, and after painstaking negotiations and delays, Ouattara entered the race against President Gbagbo. Both parties ran a tense, robust campaign, topped with televised debates. Conflict, however, did not wait long. The Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner, a decision that Gbagbo rejected. 

Ignoring pressure from the United Nations, which had helped organize the election, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and Western powers, all of whom recognised Ouattara as the winner, Gbagbo took the oath of office. After ten years in power he believed he had secured another five-year term. 

Fighting quickly resumed and the conflict that ensued killed around 3 000 Ivorians. The French military intervened and helped defeat Gbagbo, who was arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague in the Netherlands where he was detained for nine years. 

Seventeen years after his first bid, Ouattara finally ascended to the presidency. But the millions of Ivorians who voted for Gbagbo have never accepted him as a true democrat. Whether or not he won at the polls, he came to power by the barrel of a gun. 

Still, they expected him to help the country turn the page and steer the nation to real democracy and lasting stability. 

Ouattara has been rebuilding the economy, which suffered great losses during the armed conflict that enabled his ascension to power. The country has seen an economic recovery since 2011 that has placated most observers, both international and domestic. Abidjan, the economic hub, has regained its luster, and foreign investment continues to expand and diversify.

Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara (C), smiles and greets supporters as he arrives for a rally at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium, in Abidjan, on October 22, 2016 ahead of a referendum on the adoption of a new constitution that changes contentious rules on presidential eligibility.

Economic recovery alone is insufficient to heal a post-conflict country. Ivorians clamor for the national cohesion that once sustained peace and stability. 

For now, however, the people’s expectations for a real, inclusive democracy remain a dream. The country is caught in a tug of war of whimsical personal ambitions of a cadre of septuagenarian and octogenarian statesmen locked in an onerous game of thrones at the expense of Ivorians. Ouattara, former presidents Bédié, 86 years old, and Gbagbo, 75 years old, see themselves as the sole custodians of the country, each one sanctimoniously protecting the nation from the others. 

All three may be on the ballot again when Ivorians head to the polls on October 31, 2020, elbowing an emerging youth movement out of any meaningful political space.

Gbagbo has been trying to make his way back to the country in recent weeks, after being acquitted by the ICC on charges stemming from his alleged role in the violent aftermath of the 2010 elections. His former party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), has already publicly declared its allegiance should he return.

In June, Bédié announced that he would seek the nomination of his Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire-African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA). Should he win, he would be Africa’s second oldest sitting president, slightly younger than Cameroon’s 87-year old President Paul Biya.  

Ouattara’s decision to seek another term is all but a surprise.  He and his ruling RHDP party had hinted at the idea of seeking re-election for some time

Ouattara has systematically pushed aside potential challengers to his power. In late December last year, Ivorian prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for presidential candidate and former prime minister, Guillaume Soro, accusing the ex-rebel leader and Ouattara’s partner of allegedly plotting a coup. Then in April, news broke that Soro had been convicted in absentia of embezzlement. He was subsequently given a twenty-year sentence, likely excluding him from participating in the electoral process to the chagrin of his base. 

Two years ago, in a 2018 interview in the French magazine Jeune Afrique, Ouattara began planting the notion that his eligibility for contesting in the 2020 elections was not in question, referring to the constitution of 2016. “The new constitution,” he declared, “authorises me to serve two terms starting in 2020.” Consequently, the argument goes, his ten-year presidency to date does not factor into the equation. He insinuated further, “I will only make a definitive decision…based on the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. Stability and peace come before all else, including my principles.”

Ostensibly, Ouattara understands that trusting the future into the hands of the next generation, as he so convincingly stated on March 5, will offer the kind of promise that could change the trajectory of a place that has long stood as a lodestar of hope for so many Africans. Bédié and Gbagbo would do well to follow suit.  

Democratic principles, not individual people, safeguard a nation’s sovereignty and democratic progress. Ouattara has it wrong in that sense. True stability and lasting peace are only possible when principles dictate the course. If he abandons his principles, he will inevitably deal a devastating blow to all he has worked so hard to achieve. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.