Re-elected on 31 October in the wake of an election disputed by his opponents, the president seems determined to open up the playing field. Will this be enough to reconcile a newly-divided country?
Published by The Africa Report on November 30, 2020.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara is seeking re-election. (Sia Kambou/AFP)
Alassane Ouattara’s motorcade zooms by in the Abidjan night. On this 31 October, Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital – more often than not choked and jammed with traffic – looks like a ghost town.
After being picked up from his home in the Riviera neighbourhood, the president is on his way to the headquarters of the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) party, located in the nearby Deux-Plateaux section of the city. Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko and Adama Bictogo, the party’s executive director, await him there.
Given that Henri Konan Bédié and Pascal Affi N’Guessan boycotted the presidential election held that same day, Ouattara’s victory is already in the bag. For all that, the atmosphere is not a festive one.
An angry president
While the election went off without a hitch in the northern part of the country and in Abidjan, the same could not be said for many localities in central and south-eastern Côte d’Ivoire. The voting process in these regions was either disrupted or simply called off altogether. Even the capital, Yamoussoukro, appropriately nicknamed “the sleeping beauty”, was not spared. The president was caught off guard by the situation and is angry about it.
Twelve days later, on the afternoon of 12 November, when Ouattara summoned members of his administration and RHDP-affiliated figures hailing from the 16 regions impacted by election-related violence, the head of state had still not fully processed the election-day debacle.
In the meantime, the Constitutional Council had confirmed his victory (with 94.27% of the vote). The outcome was recognised by the African Union (AU), ECOWAS and France. French President Emmanuel Macron even sent him a letter of congratulations.
But at this point in time, the violence that erupted after Ouattara announced his presidential bid on 6 August has yet to end. Government motorcades have been targeted. According to the latest figures provided by the authorities, at least 87 lives have been lost.
To address this human toll, on 12 November the president brought his team to account. Similar to the way he was blindsided by the civil unrest that rocked the beginning of his second term in 2016, he fails to understand how these kinds of incidents could occur in areas he feels he has been particularly attentive to.
He said he was disappointed by the limited progress achieved given “the investments” made as well as by the lack of action taken by some officials in the room. As he spoke in front of the group gathered for the meeting, he went as far as to say that he felt “betrayed”, as if his pride had been wounded.
‘A partial victory’
“Beneath his rhetoric, Ouattara is aware of the situation surrounding his election,” said a diplomatic source from the sub-region. An Ivorian minister who asked to remain anonymous confirmed: “It’s a partial victory. On the one hand, the president managed to organise the election despite threats emanating from the opposition. On the other hand, it has put a dent in his reputation. Privately, he hoped everyone would come out to vote for him. He believes that no one other than Félix Houphouët-Boigny has done as much for this country.”
After Amadou Gon Coulibaly, Ouattara’s prime minister and hand-picked successor under the banner of the RHDP, died unexpectedly on 8 July, his decision to pick up the torch was made in less than 48 hours. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it all planned out,” he told an old friend back in 2017. “If Amadou isn’t up to it, I’ll stand for election.”
Despite the criticism he attracted as well as reluctance from some friends and allegations that he was subverting the Constitution, he never deviated from his trajectory after Coulibaly’s death, confident that he was within his rights and had no other alternative if he wanted to prevent his party from imploding and to maintain his grip on power. His supporters describe him as strong and determined, while his opponents say he is uncompromising and looks the other way.
A curious and affable epicurean in private, he sometimes shows another side of his personality in the corridors of the presidential palace. Like many a “boss”, he often stands his ground and hates being strong-armed. According to one of his old friends, “He’s a tough cookie! If he wasn’t that way, he wouldn’t be president.”
Anyone who has ever tried to bend him to their will has learned their lesson the hard way. On 4 September, when Macron received Ouattara at the Élysée Palace, the French president still hoped he would be able to persuade him to change his mind. But when Macron brought up – as diplomatically as possible – the idea of postponing the election, he came up against a wall.
Nor did the Ivorian head of state budge in early October, as the campaign’s official kick-off drew closer and diplomatic efforts to reach a compromise intensified.
Ouattara directed a reassuring narrative at his concerned counterparts. He said he was ready to open up the playing field and spoke of putting together an inclusive administration, granting amnesty and reforming the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). But after the presidential election, and not beforehand, as some had been calling for.
For the Ivorian president and his close associates, 31 October was a hurdle they needed to overcome at any cost. In their view, postponing the election would leave an opening for the opposition’s dream of creating a transitional government. So, he needed to press forward with the election and nip any dissent in the bud.
Demonstrations were prohibited and arrests stepped up – it mattered little that Ouattara’s regime was giving off the impression of slipping into authoritarian territory and attracting the ire of human rights organisations.
“We had to stand up for ourselves since the opposition’s goal was clearly to take down the regime,” said a close ally of the president. “They have been convinced since June 2017 that the population was so disaffected that Ouattara wouldn’t be able to finish his term. Our rivals were counting on a popular uprising that would establish a transitional government with the help of those in the army working for Guillaume Soro. Bédié would be its leader. He would have permitted the country’s political exiles to return and been in charge of organising new elections after an 18-month period.”
On 15 November, speaking from the platform at Treichville stadium, Bakayoko went straight to the point: “The opposition asked low-ranking soldiers to lead a revolt, to carry out a coup.” The authorities maintain they have evidence that several members of Bédié, Soro and Albert Mabri Toikeusse’s entourage were involved in these plans.
Ouattara saw red
When the opposition announced, the day after the election, that they no longer recognised the government’s authority and would set up a National Transitional Council (CNT) headed by Bédié, Ouattara saw red. “There can’t be two leaders!” he said.
With his legitimacy challenged, the president decided to take firm action. On 3 November, security forces carried out a large-scale operation at the homes of the president of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), N’Guessan, Toikeusse and Assoa Adou. Several individuals were arrested. N’Guessan, who fled, was intercepted a few days later. All were charged with sedition.
“It was a risky bet, but Ouattara came out on top and succeeded in doing so with the help of the opposition, which were no match for him,” said Arsène Bado, vice president for academic affairs at the Abidjan-based Centre for Research and Action for Peace (CERAP). “But his election raises a number of issues. He has some serious work to do to win back the trust of a segment of the population. The rift has grown deeper.”
North-south divide and cultural isolationism
Ten years after a politico-military crisis that split Côte d’Ivoire into two from 2002 to 2011, the northern and southern regions are still divided. The divide has less to do with geography than social and political variables.
Within the head of state’s inner circle and those who have backed him since the creation of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, the election seems to have cast a long shadow. “Almost 80% of the people who voted on 31 October are from the north,” said a person close to the president.
“There’s cultural isolationism, this sense that we will never be fully accepted by southerners,” a government official added.
Within a diverse opposition, resentment towards the regime has also taken a cultural turn at times, with Bédié’s entourage – and sometimes the former president himself – making extremely violent remarks about the “Dyulas” [a Mande ethnic group inhabiting several West African countries].
An ease in tensions appears to be much-needed. Aware that the situation was not sustainable and under pressure from France to open up the playing field, Ouattara resolved to change the electoral calendar and pull back on his grip somewhat.
Legislative elections postponed
Though he initially planned on organising legislative elections shortly (21 December was floated as a date), he decided to postpone them until the first half of 2021. The election date will be set depending on the progress made in talks initiated with Bédié on 11 November at the Heden Golf Hotel.
In the interim, Ouattara will be inaugurated after a brief holiday in the south of France. The ceremony is scheduled to take place on 14 December. He wants it to be low key and plans to invite just a few of his close counterparts and family members. He will then form a new government, with a few surprises expected in terms of his appointees.
Will the resumed talks with Bédié result in an agreement? Aside from the Heden Golf Hotel meeting, the two former allies spoke on 20 November, but the talks could go on for several months. While the former president is prepared, according to several sources, to make concessions, the same cannot be said for some members in his entourage – including his wife – and party.
This faction continues to view Ouattara’s third term as illegal and believes that voter turnout was actually significantly lower than what the authorities announced (53.90%).
The head of state has no intention of caving in to those who hold such views, just as he continues to oppose the appointment of an outside mediator. For now, he objects to releasing the jailed opposition members.
Soro still perceived as a threat
More than anything else, he does not want to hear about Soro, who, on 4 November, called on the army to revolt. Isolated and weakened, moving between France (whose government recently told him he was no longer welcome), Switzerland, Belgium and Dubai, the former National Assembly president is still perceived as a threat.
And then there is Laurent Gbagbo. At the beginning of November, Ouattara gave orders to issue Gbagbo both a diplomatic and an official passport. But the conundrum of the former president’s return, whose proceedings before the International Criminal Court (ICC) are ongoing, is nonetheless yet to be resolved.
“If the talks with the opposition drag on for too long, Ouattara could shut everything down. He isn’t comfortable with openness and dialogue,” said one of his confidants. “Maybe it’s because his entire career has been built on adversity.” According to those who know him, he sees politics as a question of balance of power. His mantra: assert your power before negotiating, wield the stick and then the carrot.
But what other options does he have than to make peace? Can he afford to have a segment of the political class as an enemy? Will he be able to govern for five years under these conditions?
Though he believes he has the upper hand, he has less room for manoeuvre: the head of state also has to look over his shoulder. Within his own camp, the race to name a successor is already under way. Coulibaly’s death has revived political appetites and the clash of ambitions.
During the presidential campaign, some party officials seemed ready to look ahead to the post-Ouattara era, prioritising their personal interests at the local level in terms of the upcoming legislative elections over those of their candidate. Others appeared to be on the verge of switching sides if the balance of power were to tip in favour of the opposition.
Is ‘Petit Pasqua’ next in line?
Two potential successors have emerged: Bakayoko and Patrick Achi. Appointed prime minister on 30 July, Bakayoko is a step ahead of his rival given the pivotal role he has played in maintaining stability.
But the politician Ouattara calls “Petit Pasqua” has his work cut out for him if he is going to be successful in asserting his authority over the RHDP, a party fraught with several competing factions and also home to some of his enemies.
Bakayoko is expected to retain his prime ministership for a few more months before, perhaps, being appointed vice president, a post that has been vacant since Daniel Kablan Ducan resigned. If this scenario plays out, Achi could end up taking over as prime minister, as he also has a number of strengths: his experience as minister of state and secretary general of the presidency means he has the technocratic background Ouattara deeply prizes. Over the past three years, he has become an essential part of the president’s entourage. Coulibaly’s death only reinforced his status.
“2021 could be like 2012, when a leadership war broke out between Bakayoko and Soro,” a high-level Ivorian security official told us. “But the president won’t be able to build a trust-based relationship like the one he had with Coulibaly [which was developed over three decades]. He’s going to have to clean house, keep things competitive and identify other potential successors if he hopes to retain control of the process.”
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