Among the three principal politicians who have struggled for power in Côte d’Ivoire since 1995, President Alassane Ouattara, 73, is the only one still in the game and is most likely to win the presidential election on 25 October.
The significance of this election is not so much the electoral outcome – which seems to be a foregone conclusion – as much as the political choices that will result from a renewed Ouattara mandate. Without meaningful political, security and judicial reforms, Côte d’Ivoire could face yet another prolonged period of violence.
Such instability could be triggered by the next presidential election in 2020, which will likely be disputed strongly between a new generation of politicians who have grown up in war and crisis. If health considerations make Ouattara step down earlier, new elections, and unrest, could arrive much sooner.
Political exclusion persists
The president’s first term can be seen in two ways. On one hand, in May 2011 he inherited a deeply divided country, in which five months of armed conflict had killed 3,000 people and wrecked the economy. Ouattara managed to restore economic growth and reform the cocoa-producing sector, in which Côte d’Ivoire leads the world. He also reunited a country that had been divided into two distinct administrative units since the failed September 2002 coup. This is a legacy that candidate Ouattara can, rightfully, boast about.
However, upon closer examination, these successes are not quite as clear-cut as they appear. The deeper roots of conflict have not been adequately addressed. In reality, Ouattara has done very little to dismantle the infernal machinery that led to the crisis in the first place.
One of the first causes of instability is the exclusion of a certain portion of the population from political representation. During the 1995 elections, Ouattara, a northerner, was banned from running. This fostered deep frustrations, divisions and bitterness. It led to a coup in December 1999, orchestrated by a handful of northern officers who felt Ouattara’s exclusion, based on “questionable nationality”, was, in fact, discrimination against all northern Ivorians. In 2000, the exclusion of presidential candidates Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié led to similar tensions, resulting in the partition of the country two years later.
Unfortunately, political exclusion is a persistent phenomenon in Ivorian politics.
Ouattara convinced Bédié, leader of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PCDI) and former head of state, to drop out of the race to pave the way for his candidacy. The third largest party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), faces deep internal divisions. Its leader, Laurent Gbagbo, was Ouattara’s main rival in 2010 but is now in prison. Its proposed candidate is rejected by both the electoral base and a significant portion of the party leadership. Overall, the seven other competitors have neither the recognition, nor the support, required to pose a serious challenge.
As in 1995 and 2000, therefore only one of the main three parties will present its real candidate for the elections. Many Ivorians thus face a very restricted choice in which none of the candidates truly represents them. Moreover, many are unable to vote, with only 6.3 million registered in a country of 17 million citizens.
Ouattara’s presidency was also characterised by the way many key posts were given to northern Ivorians, leaving many citizens feeling excluded. The heads of the National Assembly, the Independent Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Council all originate from the north, as do the justice minister and the director of the treasury. Likewise, the government’s security positions, such as the chief of staff, interior minister and head of intelligence, come from the north.
A renewed Ouattara mandate should take the opportunity to redistribute government positions on a more equitable geographical basis, providing a better balance between the country’s different regions and institutions. It should amend the constitution, which grants far too much power to the president, at the expense of parliament and local institutions. Without access to public finance or office, political opponents may feel the need to resort to non-electoral means to seize power.
One risk is armed violence. This is partly because Ouattara failed to reform the Ivorian military, which is in complete disrepute. Former rebel leaders of the New Forces (FN) still occupy important roles, at the expense of former pro-Gbagbo officers. The chain of command is chaotic, with several units obeying former warlords and resorting to predatory tactics. Should another war break out between competing candidates, a whole section of the military could potentially decide to abandon the government and join another camp.
Easy access to arms also raises the risk of conflicts turning deadly. While a wide-scale disarmament process was officially achieved last summer, Côte d’Ivoire is still replete with weapons. Many of these weapons remain outside state control. Last March, a UN group of experts in charge of monitoring an arms embargo discovered a warehouse in the northern region of Korogho containing 60 tonnes of military material. The warehouse is under the control of Martin Kouakou Fofié, a former warlord facing UN sanctions.
Apart from the threat to peace posed by the existence of such an arsenal, it also raises crucial questions regarding impunity. No FN members have been sentenced for crimes committed between 2002 and 2012. The judicial system remains biased, fostering a widespread sense of injustice among Ivorians and threatening any serious attempt at credible reconciliation.
In a few days or weeks, President Ouattara will likely be granted a new mandate. This will give him another five years to transition properly from stabilisation to normalisation, and he must seize the opportunity. Côte d’Ivoire will only escape from the illusion of stability when the possibility of armed struggle for power is no longer seen as a viable option.