As Côte d’Ivoire heads towards its 2020 presidential elections, the question facing the international community – particularly the African Union (AU), its Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – is what role they should play in Côte d’Ivoire’s peacebuilding and democratic consolidation.
The country’s current political context presents major challenges in the lead-up to the elections. Political alliances between major allies are shifting, there are disagreements around the reform of the electoral commission, an apparent muzzling of dissenting (opposition and civil society) voices, and a military that doesn’t seem sufficiently integrated.
The spectre of another political crisis is hovering over Côte d’Ivoire. African and international institutions should engage all Ivorian stakeholders to help them iron out their differences to ensure a peaceful electoral campaign and election.
The United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel is said to be trying to defuse political tensions while both the government and opposition have petitioned the AU. However a recent communiqué by AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat expressing satisfaction with the new electoral commission upset the Ivorian opposition and has tainted the commission’s impartiality.
Côte d’Ivoire slid into instability after the military overthrew Aimé Henri Konan Bédié in December 1999 and put General Robert Guéï in power. Despite the relative calm brought about by the Linas-Marcoussis (2003), Accra (2004) and Pretoria (2005) agreements, the country remained divided between the north and south. The 2007 Ouagadougou agreement, another peace attempt, reunited the territory and resolved the crucial question of the eligibility criteria for the presidency, which had excluded Alassane Ouattara from the race.
The disputed outcomes of the October 2010 presidential election again plunged Côte d’Ivoire into crisis, claiming more than 3 000 lives. Laurent Gbagbo refused to yield power to Ouattara, after first one and then the other was declared the winner by key electoral management bodies (the Constitutional Council and the Independent Electoral Commission respectively).
The institutional question concerning the electoral process – and therefore the impartiality of electoral management bodies – wasn’t really resolved, despite it forming an integral part of the various agreements.
Today government, opposition and some in civil society openly disagree on the Independent Electoral Commission’s (CEI) latest reforms. These were recently adopted by a parliament largely dominated by the ruling party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP).
In 2016 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ordered the Ivorian government to reform the CEI. The adoption of the new framework for the CEI’s composition, however, was neither unanimous nor consensual. The opposition has denounced a balance of power that still favours the ruling party, which would keep control over one of the key electoral management bodies.
Mutinies in the Ivorian army in 2017 and 2018 add to the political dissension. The rumble – which also involves soldiers demobilised in 2011 – began in Bouaké, the former rebels’ headquarters. Many of these rebels have since been integrated into the Ivorian regular army. Former rebels asked the government to make bonus payments dating back to 2011, when they backed Ouattara after Gbagbo’s refusal to abdicate power.
In 2010 the electoral contest revolved around three major political parties – Bédié’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire – African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA), Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) and Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans. The last two reached the second round, after which Bédié rallied behind Ouattara under the RHDP platform. The recent transformation of the RHDP into a unified political party doesn’t have the approval of all members of the platform, especially the PDCI-RDA.
Bédié – who in September 2014 launched the so-called ‘Daoukro call’ to vote for Ouattara in the first round of the 2015 presidential election – denounced Ouattara for reneging on his promise to support a PDCI-RDA candidate in 2020. Bédié is now attempting a rapprochement with Gbagbo’s FPI and other political parties ahead of the 2020 election campaign.
Guillaume Soro (National Assembly president until February 2019 and former secretary-general of the rebel Forces Nouvelles that helped bring Ouattara to power in 2011), having also refused to join the RHDP, is positioning himself for 2020. He has rallied some support around him, and is also said to be in talks with Bédié.
An alliance among Bédié, Gbagbo and Soro for the 2020 presidential election would undoubtedly shake Ouattara’s regime. Gbagbo, Ouattara, Bédié and Soro were the main signatories of the 2005 Pretoria agreement. Since then, alliances have been formed and disbanded and continue to play a major role in Ivorian political life.
The country must be prevented from being torn apart again by partisan and personal interests. While the primary responsibility for peace rests with the country’s main political (and military) actors, the AU and ECOWAS could help.
The AU, in particular its PSC, is mandated to prevent conflicts in Africa. Côte d’Ivoire has had a turbulent history since the demise of Félix Houphouët-Boigny and the subsequent division of the country. The continent should have supported Côte d’Ivoire more sustainably.
When Gbagbo refused to leave power in 2011, the PSC suspended Côte d’Ivoire while ECOWAS threatened to take military action to dislodge him. These two institutions should have worked more resolutely on supporting national reconciliation to address the crisis. The AU and PSC could have used the tools at their disposal to support Côte d’Ivoire after 2011.
The question of reforming the electoral commission will continue being a stumbling block between the government and opposition. If left unresolved, it could affect the credibility of the electoral process and cause serious upheaval.
Beyond the polls, Africa could still chart a plan to help Côte d’Ivoire achieve genuine reconciliation through reweaving the social fabric and rebuilding meaningful national cohesion. A wait-and-see attitude is not a viable approach.
Mohamed M Diatta, Researcher, PSC Report, ISS Addis Ababa
This article was first published in the ISS Peace and Security Council Report.