President Alassane Ouattara’s recent decision to run for a controversial third term in the October 31 presidential elections following the death of former Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly has seriously altered the country’s political outlook.
Ouattara’s latest decisions may seriously discredit the Constitution and his democratic credentials, as he is using the recent enactment of the 2016 Constitution to justify bypassing the two-term limit. However, his decision has not elicited international condemnation, which likely stems from the international stakeholders’ prioritizing stability over democratic principles.
Former President Henri Konan Bedie is Ouattara’s primary contender following the disqualification of both former PM Guillaume Soro and former President Laurent Gbagbo due to active indictments. Bedie may benefit from the support of Gbagbo and Soro, though his chances of defeating Ouattara currently appear limited.
Unrest and protests have been witnessed throughout Ivory Coast in the aftermath of Ouattara’s announcement of his intent to run for a third mandate, with at least six killed. With opposition leaders calling for street protests to destabilize Ouattara, unrest is poised to persist, especially in opposition strongholds, ahead of the election.
The potential for opposition sympathizers within the military to mount mutinies remains, though Ouattara’s administration has gradually increased its control over the security apparatus over the past several years. Similarly, militant cells operating in the border area between northern Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso may exploit the political instability to carry out attacks, though the possibility remains low.
Maintain heightened vigilance in the vicinity of gatherings due to the possibility of spontaneous protests and their associated risk of eliciting a harsh security response.
Please be advised
On August 6, President Alassane Ouattara officially announced his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for October 31.
The announcement followed the death of former Prime Minister and ruling Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) presidential candidate Amadou Gon Coulibaly on July 8, and several weeks of calls from senior RHDP officials requesting his candidacy.
In March, Ouattara initially announced his intent to renounce a third consecutive mandate. Ouattara portrayed his controversial decision to run for a third term as a “sacrifice” for his country as he had already planned his life after the Presidency.
Opposition parties have been criticizing the move as being “unconstitutional”. According to the 2016 Constitution, a president may be re-elected only once. RHDP members and Ouattara have argued that the Constitution is only valid from the time it was enacted in 2016.
Former President Henri Konan Bedie, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), officially submitted his presidential candidacy to the Independent Electoral Committee (CEI) on August 27 along with over 43 others, including the leaders of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), former President Laurent Gbagbo and Pascal Affi N’Guessan, as well as the leader of Generations and People in Solidarity (GPS) party, former Prime Minister Guillaume Soro.
Both Soro and Gbagbo are in exile and have been formally disqualified from the race by the CEI due to their active legal conviction within Ivorian courts.
Separately, sources indicate that French President Emmanuel Macron privately asked Ouattara to withdraw his candidacy in a meeting in France on September 4, which Ouattara declined.
Meanwhile, over six individuals were killed and dozens of others injured in protests against Ouattara’s candidacy on August 12-13. These protests mostly took place in opposition strongholds in Ivory Coast’s outlying regions, notably in Comoe District’s Bonoua and Lacs District’s Daoukro, which is also Bedie’s birthplace.
Additional protests have been recorded across Abidjan, but have been mostly contained by the security forces that have been widely deployed in the city following Ouattara’s announcement.
Assessments & Forecast
President Ouattara’s candidacy likely to damage his credibility, undermine Constitution as well as affect oversight on democratic transitions throughout West Africa
President Alassane Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term has seriously altered Ivory Coast’s political outlook as well as the president’s legacy as a strong defender of democratic transitions in West Africa. Ouattara likely initially intended to remain involved in politics by having former PM Coulibaly, a close ally, as the president. This would have led the country to its first peaceful political transition in its recent history, where the previous transition in 2010-2011 between Ouattara and former President Laurent Gbagbo led to a peak in the civil war conflict. Coulibaly’s sudden death drastically altered Ouattara’s post-presidency plans and led him to maintain his direct involvement as the head of the country. The lack of perceived strong alternatives within the RHDP combined with the presence of a political veteran, Henri Konan Bedie, in the presidential race likely partly motivated his decision.
To this point, Ouattara likely strongly believes that he is the most qualified leader and the only person capable of continuing to stabilize the country. His presidency since 2011 has been marked by exceptional economic growth, although this has partially slowed over the past few years, as well as many reforms within several sectors. Ouattara has seemingly strengthened and stabilized the military, notably since the onset of mutinies in 2014 and 2017, together with the current Prime Minister and former Defense Minister, Hamed Bakayoko. This overall stability contrasted with the turmoil observed in the period that followed the death of former President Felix Houphouet Boigny marked by a coup in 1999 and civil war in the 2000s under Gbagbo. In this context, Ouattara likely perceives that exiting office would be too much of a risk, with Coulibaly being the only trustworthy alternative in his view.
In order to minimize the fallout from his candidacy, Ouattara likely voluntarily took some time, close to two weeks, to accept the RHDP’s nomination and, thus, appear hesitant, and portrayed the decision as a sacrifice for his country. He referred to the death of Coulibaly as “force majeure” that imposed him to step up for the best interest of the state. Ouattara understood that his decision would stir controversy and tarnish his reputation, which explains his attempt to label the decision as unpremeditated and exceptional.
Nonetheless, Ouattara’s possible third term may have long-term implications on the Ivorian and West African political landscape. The 2016 Constitution was designed to cement Ivory Coast’s democracy, imposing a two-term limit on the president and banning other autocratic practices such as forced political exiles. However, Ouattara has used loopholes to maintain a tight grip on power without, to his view, violating the text. The exile of two of Ouattara’s main political opponents, Laurent Gbagbo and Guillaume Soro, were enabled by convictions in Ivorian courts. Soro’s conviction for embezzlement on April 28 and an earlier arrest warrant for “preparing a military and civil insurrection” to seize power were likely carefully timed as Soro was preparing a promising bid for the presidential election.
FORECAST: As a result, Ouattara’s latest decisions may seriously discredit the Constitution and the path towards entrenched democratic institutions he seemingly attempted to set at the start of his presidency. More importantly, it may have repercussions in neighboring countries, notably within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), where he has held an important role over the past years. ECOWAS’s ability to credibly intervene to settle crises will be damaged as Ivory Coast is likely to continue to hold a significant position within the organization. This takes place as another member, Guinea, faces similar issues with President Alpha Conde attempting to seek a third term in office after having changed the constitution for this purpose. The actions of both Ouattara and Conde may provide incentives for other democratically elected leaders to extend their stay in power.
While Ouattara has been praised by the international community for initially renouncing a third mandate in March, most countries have refrained from vocally criticizing his recent retraction. The US notably stated that they respect the Ivorians’ right to self-determination and that the Constitutional Court must settle the issue. ECOWAS and France have remained discreet and mostly condemned the violence observed over the recent weeks. French President Emmanuel Macron met with Ouattara in France on September 4 without subsequently formally addressing Ouattara’s decision. According to recent reports, Macron may have privately tried to convince Ouattara against running, though it is unlikely that he will publicly condemn the decision. These reactions indirectly portray tolerance for Ouattara’s candidacy. They likely stem from a desire to prioritize stability over democratic principles while attempting to avoid further antagonizing leaders that have been prominent partners over recent years. FORECAST: In light of these reactions, the relations between Ivory Coast and its historic partners, notably France, are set to continue unabated. The international community and ECOWAS are only likely to intervene in case of prolonged unrest, which may trigger an overall crisis.
President Ouattara likely to win third term despite increased challenges posed by enhanced unification within opposition
Following the disqualification of former President Laurent Gbagbo and former PM Guillaume Soro from the presidential race by the CEI, PDCI leader Henri Konan Bedie emerged as the sole major opposition candidate able to run against Ouattara. Bedie is a prominent political figure within Ivory Coast as a former president and close collaborator of the founder of the country, Felix Houphouet Boigny. Both Ouattara and Bedie have claimed Boigny’s heritage while their fight over his succession led to an entrenched political crisis in the 1990s during Bedie’s presidency. The alliance brokered during the 2010 presidential election that formed the RHDP coalition as a common ‘Houphouetist’ front against Gbagbo slowly disintegrated over the years, with the PDCI entirely withdrawing in 2018. Therefore, the upcoming election will witness a confrontation between two leaders with extensive political experience coming from the same political family.
Bedie benefits from an organized, large, and popular political structure via the PDCI. Furthermore, the PDCI struck an alliance with Laurent Gbagbo’s FPI, designed to enable the two opposition parties to campaign together to win the presidency. According to the agreement, the best performing candidate between Gbagbo and Bedie in the elections would join the other in a prospective second round. The potential of the FPI-PDCI alliance was notably witnessed in a meeting that drew ten of thousands of supporters in Abidjan’s Treichville in late 2019. FORECAST: Since Gbagbo is unable to participate in the election, Bedie will likely benefit from Gbagbo’s support from the first round. This would seriously boost Bedie’s chances, possibly enabling him to confront Ouattara in a second round.
Similarly, former PM Guillaume Soro has been disqualified from the electoral race, though he has continuously attempted to appeal the verdict to enable him to run. At this stage, it is highly unlikely that Soro will be able to return from his exile in Paris given the authorities’ well-established unwillingness to withdraw the arrest warrant as well as other criminal convictions against him. In this context, Soro may eventually grant his support to Bedie from the first round. Although Soro has been associated with the agreement between Gbagbo’s FPI and Bedie, he has refrained from granting his direct support to any other candidate as yet, likely in a final attempt to put forward his legitimacy as a candidate. However, Soro may strike a deal with Bedie to have him vacate all charges pronounced against him in case of an electoral victory.
Altogether, 43 individuals have presented their candidacy to the CEI. In addition to Bedie, Soro, and Gbagbo, the other notable candidate is Pascal Affi N’Guessan, currently the president of the FPI, who previously competed in the 2015 elections. Ouattara won the 2015 elections in a landslide, with over 83 percent of the vote while N’Guessan received less than ten percent. During this election, Gbagbo’s party had boycotted and Bedie and Soro were still part of the RHDP coalition with Ouattara. In those circumstances, N’Guessan likely benefited from being the only credible opposition candidate at the time. FORECAST: With other figures like Bedie on the ballot during this election, it is unlikely that N’Guessan will surpass his previous results. Furthermore, the continued divisions within the FPI between his faction and Gbagbo’s supporters will likely further decrease his backers, as Gbagbo’s supporters are likely to favor Bedie’s candidacy.
FORECAST: The Constitutional Court is set to review the 44 candidates over the coming weeks, and many candidates are poised to be disqualified. Although Bedie’s candidacy has not been contested as yet and the PDCI leader does not face any known legal issues within the country, it cannot be entirely ruled that the Constitutional Court will reject his candidacy in light of precedent. This would likely create a situation in which the elections would be entirely boycotted by the opposition. However, this possibility remains distant.
FORECAST: Despite Bedie’s popularity and possible support from other candidates, his chances to defeat Ouattara appear to be rather slim, with his advanced age and arguably poor record during his presidency in the 1990s likely to act against him. In fact, Ouattara’s success in partially reshaping the country will likely appeal to many who voted for the larger RHDP coalition in the 2010 and 2015 elections. Additionally, Ouattara’s tight grip on the country’s electoral structures may play to his advantage, though no accusations of fraud have been verified in the past ballot and independent observers gave Ivory Coast a clean bill of health in 2015. Ultimately, President Ouattara appears to have the highest chances to win the ballot and carry on with a third term.
Unrest to persist, intensify throughout Ivory Coast, notably in opposition strongholds while risks of mutinies, militancy remain
Unrest and protests have been witnessed throughout Ivory Coast in the aftermath of Ouattara’s announcement of his intent to run for a third term. Such protests mostly transpired in opposition strongholds in Ivory Coast’s outlying regions, notably in Comoe District’s Bonoua, Lac District’s Daoukro, and Goh-Djiboua District’s Gagnoua. Bonoua and Daoukro are notably the respective birthplaces of former First Lady Simone Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bedie. The elevated anti-Ouattara sentiment existing in these localities led to intense confrontations with the security forces dispatched to disperse the protesters, with at least six killed. Besides, several Guinean nationals were allegedly targeted due to perceptions of “foreigners” supporting the current President. This is particularly reminiscent of the nationalistic and anti-foreigner stances observed during the civil war in the 2000s, notably due to Ouattara’s alleged Burkinabe descent.
Despite several instances of protest witnessed in several neighborhoods of Abidjan, the heavy deployment of the security forces around Abidjan mostly contained the unrest and prevented further escalation in the economic hub. Protests were mostly witnessed in the vicinity of government institutions, notably the CEI, with Soro and Gbagbo’s protesters denouncing their candidate’s disqualifications.
FORECAST: In light of the opposition’s limited chances of winning the elections via the ballot, calls for protests will likely continue to be used as a way to discredit Ouattara’s presidency and display the popular resistance to a potential third mandate. Hence, anti-Ouattara protests are anticipated to recur throughout Ivory Coast in the weeks leading to the elections on October 31, with unrest particularly likely in opposition strongholds that have already seen turmoil such as Gagnoua, Daoukro, and Bonoua. Additional opposition PDCI strongholds like Bouake, the second-largest city in the country, may witness unrest. Furthermore, Soro’s birthplace in the northern Savanes District, Ferkessedougou, may also witness protests denouncing the GPS leader’s disqualification. Abidjan’s wider area remains a focal point for unrest, with spontaneous as well as organized protests likely in the vicinity of governmental institutions. Security forces are poised to forcibly disperse any unauthorized protests, while Ouattara may extend the ongoing ban on street protests over the COVID-19 pandemic beyond September 15 to avoid large demonstrations.
The recent increased political instability in the country and the arrest warrant launched against Guillaume Soro have brought back fears of potential mutinies that greatly destabilized the country in 2017. Soro and many of his associates were notably accused of treason and attempting a coup. There has long been fear of Soro using his influence within the army as the former leader of the Forces Nouvelles ex-rebel group during the civil war in the 2000s. In the aftermath of the conflict, the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process integrated the ex-rebel Forces Nouvelles and the Defense and Security Forces of Ivory Coast (FDS), loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo, into the Armed Forces of Ivory Coast. As part of the RHDP coalition, Soro was a key component of the DDR process. Although Soro allegedly still has many supporters within the ranks of the army, the ex-rebel leader’s influence has slowly waned over the past years as Ouattara and PM Hamed Bakayoko gained the support of many generals by promoting them.
FORECAST: Given the authorities’ reinforced control over the security apparatus, the potential for a large mutiny that would greatly destabilize the country and the electoral process appears to be limited. However, this cannot be entirely ruled out given precedent. Besides, certain elements or commanders sympathizing with opposition figures may attempt to launch insurgencies, which would create confrontations with other units of the military, notably the Presidential Guard.
Meanwhile, the attack that killed 12 soldiers on Kafolo military base in Savanes District near the Burkina Faso border on June 11 further highlighted the risk of militant spillover into the Ivory Coast. Militant groups established in neighboring Burkina Faso have increasingly been active along the border since late 2019, while local cells have likely been established within the Ivorian territory. Following the Kafolo attack, the military responded immediately by conducting operations against suspected militant hideouts in forested areas in northern Ivory Coast. Although many cells have been reportedly dismantled and the mastermind of the attack has been neutralized, dormant militant cells likely remain present in the region. FORECAST: Therefore, such cells may attempt to exploit the potential instability linked to the elections to conduct further attacks. At this stage, this possibility also remains limited, and this prospect is unlikely to particularly impact the electoral outcome.
Those operating or residing in Ivory Coast are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in the vicinity of gatherings due to the possibility of spontaneous protests and their associated risk of eliciting a harsh security response.
Travel to Abidjan may continue while adhering to stringent security protocols due to high levels of crime, particularly in the Youpougon, Adjame, Abobo, and Koumassi areas.
Avoid all travel to the immediate border area with Burkina Faso due to the possible presence of militants.