/ 13 September 2020

Yes, Cote D’Ivoire’s president is running for a third term. But this time it’s different

Icoast Politics Referendum Constitution
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.


Since postcolonial times, Africa and its leaders have been typecast in a uniform mould. Africa will forever be a homogenous continent that is afflicted with disease, hobbled by underdevelopment, and riddled with internecine conflict. Its leaders have been characterised as incorrigibly corrupt and incompetent, self-serving dictators who will do anything to cling on to power.

The conduct of some leaders may have earned African leaders such unflattering credentials, but it would be amiss and ahistorical to argue that this blanket assessment is an accurate picture of the entire countries that constitute the continent. We need to continuously remind observers and ourselves and that Africa is not one homogenous country.

The West African country of Côte d’Ivoire, a place that I am proud to call home, is a prime example of a country that has contradicted this Afro-pessimist profile. 

Since gaining political independence from the French, the economic performance of Côte d’Ivoire has been nothing short of exceptional. It was no mistake that observers have summed up the first 30 years of independence as the “Ivorian Miracle”. After years of political instability and economic decline in the country, Côte d’Ivoire has been growing steadily fuelled by the vibrant agricultural sector. Cote d’Ivoire is the largest cocoa producer in the world, accounting for 30% of the world’s production.

The country also has significant offshore oil and natural gas reserves, the exploration of which has already boosted government revenues. Moreover, the government is increasing investment in education and infrastructure, resulting in the development of the manufacturing industry.

The economy continues to post good numbers: real gross domestic product growth was 7.4% in 2018 and 2019, and could remain above 7% during 2020-21, assuming good rainfall and favourable terms of trade. The service sector remains the main driver of the economy, contributing 3.4 percentage points to growth in 2018. Industry contributed 1.5 percentage points in 2018, thanks to a dynamic agri-food industry and the construction and public-works sector. 

Regrettably, the gains that Côte d’Ivoire are being threatened by inaccurate reporting of recent political developments in the country. Much of the international media reportage on Côte d’Ivoire has defaulted to explaining away the presidential succession in Côte d’Ivoire as another example of power-hungry leaders overstaying their welcome. Given my responsibility for engaging with the Ivorian diaspora, please allow me to outline the political landscape and set the record straight.

After nearly a decade of rapid economic growth, massive investment in infrastructure and a sustained improvement in living standards, President Alassane Ouattara resolved to hand over power to the next generation on March 5 this year. After consultation with the ruling RHDP coalition, President Ouattara offered the baton to Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly. 

Back to the drawing board

Coulibaly was set to represent the RHDP in next month’s elections until he unexpectedly died of a heart condition on July 8 this year. This unforeseeable tragedy came at a time when Côte d’Ivoire was grappling with the twin challenges of an unprecedented public health crisis in the form of the Covid-19 outbreak and a sudden uptick in jihadist terrorism on its northern border. 

Weeks away from the electoral commission’s deadline for presidential candidates, Ouattara was forced back to the drawing board. He consulted widely in a bid to establish consensus around a way forward, but failed to rally the RHDP behind a new candidate.

On August 6, Ouattara invoked force majeure, recanting his earlier promise to retire. Fearful of a repeat of the tumult that accompanied previous transitions of power in 1993, 1999-2000 and 2010-11, Ouattara sacrificed his personal reputation for the good of Côte d’Ivoire. 

We need to acknowledge the predicament that Ouattara faced last month in the face of unexpected demise of the prime minister, the vacuum left by his departure and a set of new challenges that threatened to undermine the country’s socioeconomic gains.

Reaching conclusions that feed into the African stereotypes may make for good headlines and secure web clicks, but they disregard the historical facts, fuel Afro-pessimism and undermine our understanding of this beautiful continent and its diverse peoples.

Genuine leaders are occasionally forced to take unpopular decisions, irrespective of public opinion or international criticism. As Nelson Mandela surmised, true leaders have no time to rest on their laurels, but must strive ever onwards: “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” 

Issiaka Konaté is the director general for Ivorians Overseas, a government department.