Ivory Coast on edge as high-stakes election looms

Tensions running high in lead-up to October polls, seen as major test of stability in world's top cocoa producer.

Police detain a demonstrator during an August 13 protest in Abidjan against Ouattara's decision to stand for a third term [Luc Gnago/Reuters]

Ivory Coast's October election was always likely to be tense - but President Alassane Ouattara's decision last month to seek a controversial third term has dramatically raised the stakes.

After all, it was only on March 5 that Ouattara announced he would not stand for re-election, even as he insisted that constitutional amendments introduced in 2016 allowed him to run again. Pledging to "pass on the torch to a new generation", the 78-year-old a week later told a gathering of the governing RDHP party they "will be in good hands" as he backed Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly for president.

The announcement of Coulibaly's candidacy seemed to end months of speculation that Ouattara would try to extend his stay, thus eliminating a great source of friction between the RDHP and the opposition ahead of the highly anticipated October 31 presidential election.

But the relief was short-lived.

On July 8, less than a week after his return to Ivory Coast from a two-month stay in France for medical treatment for recurring heart issues, the 61-year-old Coulibaly - a fervent Ouattara loyalist - fell ill during a cabinet meeting and passed away.

The sudden death of the president's hand-picked successor created a leadership vacuum at RDHP; within hours, senior party officials began floating the idea of pressing Ouattara to reconsider. In the end, it was hardly a surprise when Ouattara declared on August 6 he would accept the RDHP's nomination to be its candidate - a decision he described as a "real sacrifice".

The opposition, however, viewed it completely differently. Likening it to a "coup", Ouattara's furious opponents said his course reversal violated the constitution. Moreover, they warned, it risked a return to the turbulence of the past.

The anger swiftly spilled onto the streets, too. Days of violent protests erupted in different parts of the country, leaving several opposition supporters dead and dozens arrested. Government opponents accused authorities of using excessive force to quell the demonstrations. Worryingly, a report by Amnesty International said police in the commercial capital of Abidjan had apparently allowed groups of machete-wielding men to attack those who defied a ban to protest against Ouattara's bid.

The mounting tension has sparked fears the crisis would feed into long-simmering grievances, threatening almost 10 years of fragile peace in a country that has never seen a peaceful and democratic transfer of power.

In 2002, a failed coup ignited a civil war that essentially split Ivory Coast in two, with the south controlled by then-President Laurent Gbagbo and the north in the hands of the Forces Nouvelles rebels. In 2010, a delayed presidential vote meant to draw a line under the conflict instead sparked months of post-election violence when Gbagbo refused to stand down after the electoral commission declared Ouattara the winner. At least 3,000 people were killed in the fighting that ensued between forces loyal to the two men, with both sides accused of committing atrocities.

"We still remember the crisis of 2002, that of 2011 - [so] everybody is scared," said Sylvain N'Guessan, a political analyst in Abidjan, fearing that the rising level of tension building up to next month's vote could escalate into serious inter-communal violence.

Jessica Moody, a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, shared the alarm. "This is an extremely big test for Ivory Coast," she said. "There is a high risk that the election will be contentious and will send the country back to war."

Economic transformation

Sliding into a violent power struggle would be a major setback for the world's biggest cocoa producer, where years of political stability and international support have fuelled a remarkable economic turnaround.

A former top International Monetary Fund official, the Western-backed Ouattara has presided over a high-flying economy that has been expanding by an average of 8 percent annually since he took power in 2011 - before the coronavirus pandemic pumped the brakes this year. His economic stewardship, including a commitment to infrastructure construction, has won the confidence of international donors and investors alike, helping Ivory Coast to largely regain its historic role as the financial hub of francophone West Africa.

But beneath the gleaming towers that have transformed Abidjan's skyline, deep economic and social inequalities continue to fester. According to the World Bank, nearly half of the country's 25 million people already lived in poverty well before the pandemic struck, leaving many more struggling to put food on the table. As war-time grievances over land ownership persist, large numbers of Ivorians remain disgruntled by their inability to benefit from the years of skyrocketing economic growth.

"The rewards have not been as widespread and there is still significant poverty," said W. Gyude Moore, senior policy fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development and former public works minister for Liberia.

"Rising inequality and high youth unemployment are breeding resentment," he added.

Bubbling underneath the surface is also a lingering frustration over the unfulfilled promise of impartial justice in the post-war era, according to analysts.

"In some ways, there was this image that Ouattara was sailing on a relatively calm sea for 10 years - but all the structural issues have not been addressed and are now coming back to the forefront," said Professor Jeremy Allouche, from the Institute of Development Studies, calling the country's national reconciliation "a disaster".

'Kick in the teeth'

After ascending to the presidency, Ouattara had repeatedly pledged to ensure accountability for the crimes committed during the 2010-2011 violence. Nine years on, however, the transitional justice process has mainly targeted Gbagbo loyalists while those associated with Ouattara have largely been spared from prosecution.