Côte d’Ivoire: Defusing Electoral Tensions Amid Polarised Politics

Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election, scheduled for October, risks heightening the country’s deep-rooted political tensions. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to push for dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition and develop tangible structures for electoral observation.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Spring Edition.

As a presidential election scheduled for October draws closer, tensions in Côte d’Ivoire are building along longstanding political and ethnic fault lines.

Although President Alassane Ouattara helped defuse a potential crisis when he formally withdrew from the presidential race in March, avoiding a major dispute over the constitutionality of his running for a third term, opposition politicians now accuse his government of hampering them from competing against the new ruling-party candidate, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly. They complain of a climate of harassment and intimidation, and that the authorities are working through the courts to put them and their supporters behind bars on spurious grounds. The Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), the main opposition party, has meanwhile been boycotting participation in the Independent Electoral Commission – the body responsible for administering the polls – which it says is too heavily dominated by individuals politically close to the president. Tensions are heightening further as government and opposition politicians debate whether the election should be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the quarrelling escalates, political leaders are likely to rely further on firing up their ethnic and regional base.

As the quarrelling escalates, political leaders (including PDCI members and others who split from Ouattara’s former ruling coalition after he collapsed it into a single party at the beginning of 2019) are likely to rely further on firing up their ethnic and regional bases, a tactic to which Ivorian politicians have resorted since the death of Felix Houphouët-Boigny, founder of the nation, 27 years ago. Violent clashes in the centre of the country in 2019 between two ethnic communities with different political allegiances point to possible renewed troubles ahead. Particularly concerning is that ethnic and social tensions could upend the delicate equilibrium within the factionalised national army, where different cohorts owe loyalty to the various leaders who placed them in their positions over the two past decades. Only three years ago, former rebels integrated in the army mutinied, exposing the institution’s fragility.

Resolving Côte d’Ivoire’s deep-seated political rifts, which flared into open violence during the post-electoral crisis of 2010 and 2011 and have never fully healed, will take years and certainly cannot be achieved in advance of the election scheduled for October. The immediate challenge for the nation and its external supporters is to navigate the current period without inflaming combustible ethnic and political dynamics.

To this end, the EU and its member states should focus their efforts on maximising chances of a credible election conducted on terms acceptable to all parties, and on defusing disputes as they arise, including by:

  • Pushing for dialogue between the government and political opposition with the aim of convincing the latter to cease its boycott of the Independent Electoral Commission, and reaching agreement on whether the election should be postponed if preparations are further delayed due to COVID-19. The EU should coordinate its efforts with the Economic Community of West African States and UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel;
  • To the extent feasible during the pandemic, mounting a strong electoral observation mission, which matches as closely as possible the level of resources and staffing for the mission that monitored the 2010 presidential polls;
  • Investing in the training of electoral agents to help avoid technical irregularities such as unsealed ballot boxes or poorly drafted records of official proceedings at polling stations, which have sparked disputes in previous elections;
  • Supporting the April 2020 decision of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which recommended the release of nineteen individuals close to the former prime minister and opposition figure, Guillaume Soro, who have been in detention since December 2019.
  • Working within the EU and with African states and other countries with strong ties to Côte d’Ivoire to emphasise the importance of credible and transparent elections, underscore the importance of resolving political disputes peacefully, and apply concerted pressure to dissuade potential spoilers from fomenting unrest.

Key Figures Sidelined

Presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire are regarded as having particularly high stakes because of the Ivorian constitution, which gives the head of state and his inner circle an enormous share of executive and economic power. Political parties have accordingly come to equate electoral defeat with economic and political marginalisation, for both their leaders and the ethnic groups they represent.

Starting in 2018, in preparation for the forthcoming election cycle, the cadre of senior officials and supporters closest to incumbent President Ouattara tried to secure near certain victory for him by forcing a merger between his Rally of Republicans party and five other parties that together with it formed an umbrella coalition called the Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). Had they succeeded, the emergent party would have been well positioned to gain an outright majority in the first round of presidential voting. Not all the partners of the coalition agreed to this merger, however – with some arguing that it had twice delivered power into Ouattara’s hands in 2010 and 2015, and that it was time for another party’s leader to take its helm. When Ouattara nevertheless pressed forward with the merger, his main coalition partner, the PDCI, run by former President Henri Konan Bédié, seceded in August 2018.

The merger went ahead and resulted in the creation of a new party in January 2019, which like the coalition it succeeded is called the RHDP, that is much less strong electorally than Ouattara’s entourage had hoped. Its weakness can be attributed in part to the PDCI’s opt-out and in part to Ouattara’s March 2020 decision to withdraw from the race. While the latter step eventually helped mitigate tensions between the ruling party and the opposition, it accentuated divisions within the new ruling party.

The 12 March designation of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly to be the ruling party’s candidate has not put a lid on these divisions. Many of his party members doubt he has either the political clout or sufficient popularity to lead the party to victory. Another reason concerns Gon Coulibaly’s health; he was evacuated to Paris on 2 May for undisclosed medical reasons. Moreover, as part of the coalition merger’s continuing fallout, another RHDP component, the Union for Democracy and Peace in Côte d’Ivoire, a small regional party with a strong electoral footprint in the country’s mountainous west, is now split between pro- and anti-RHDP factions.

Opposition groups say Ouattara’s government is looking to the courts to help it quash the party’s rivals.

Opposition groups say Ouattara’s government is looking to the courts to help it quash the party’s rivals, which include former President Laurent Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, which has allied with Bédié’s PDCI. This new alliance poses a significant political threat to the RHDP’s chance for victory. Although Gbagbo has been acquitted of charges brought by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor in connection with 2010-2011 election-related violence – an acquittal that the ICC prosecutor has appealed – he remains subject to a 2018 conviction in absentia and a twenty-year sentence issued by an Ivorian national court for “robbery” of the central bank following his electoral defeat in 2010. Former minister and Gbagbo ally Charles Blé Goudé, who was also acquitted at the ICC pending appeal, was similarly convicted in absentia by an Ivorian court, in his case for “acts of torture, homicide and rape”.

While Gbagbo and Blé Goudé are required by the court to remain, respectively, in Belgium and the Netherlands pending resolution of their ICC cases, some opposition leaders argue that the Ivorian sentences were politically motivated and intended to deter them from returning home before the election, however their cases are resolved in The Hague. Gbagbo and Blé Goudé maintain their innocence.

Ivorian criminal proceedings have also sidelined Guillaume Soro, a former Ouattara ally, who like Bédié had refused to support the merger of the RHDP coalition parties, and who had announced his intention to run for president in October. In late 2019, Ivorian authorities issued a warrant for Soro’s arrest on suspicion of coup plotting, money laundering and embezzlement just as he was wrapping up a lengthy visit to Europe, causing him to defer his trip home. In April, a domestic court sentenced him to twenty years in prison for embezzlement. In December 2019, the authorities also jailed nineteen of Soro’s collaborators, including several parliamentarians and family members.

Soro’s situation came before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Just days before the Ivorian court convicted him, the human rights court requested suspension of his arrest warrant, arguing that it risked “seriously compromising” his “political rights and freedoms”. The latter court also asked for the release of his nineteen collaborators held since December. In reaction, Côte d’Ivoire withdrew from the court. Then, on 5 May, Public Prosecutor Richard Adou announced that fourteen members of the military, including two senior officers, had been arrested in April as part of an ongoing investigation into Soro’s alleged coup attempt.

Meanwhile, PDCI officials have told Crisis Group that they are also subjected to regular harassment, from high-level arrest to petty interference in party operations. In December 2019, a court jailed the PDCI’s vice president, Jacques Mangoua, for weapons possession, releasing him three months later.

The developments are reminiscent of politics in Côte d’Ivoire in 1999, during Bédié’s presidency, when authorities issued an arrest warrant against Ouattara, then an opposition politician, for “forgery and use of forgery” just weeks before Bédié was ousted by military officers who supported Ouattara. In 2000, Bédié and Ouattara were both excluded from the presidential race, which proved to be the first step in a rapidly escalating crisis that culminated in the country’s partition two years later.

Fault Lines

In a country where efforts at reconciliation between sometimes warring ethnic groups and political factions have failed, antagonisms among political parties remain powerful. Insofar as the parties are more representatives of regional or ethnic interests than vectors for manifestos or ideologies, their opposition to each other tends to translate quickly into intercommunal violence.

The last two years have seen a worrying uptick in intercommunal violence related to political contestation.

The last two years have seen a worrying uptick in intercommunal violence related to political contestation, reflecting ethnic and political tensions that almost certainly could be exacerbated by the election. Following municipal polls in late 2018, violence erupted in multiple locations across the country, leaving at least five dead. Months later, in May 2019, clashes in the town of Béoumi, in the country’s centre, left fourteen people dead and more than a hundred wounded. The violence involved two ethnic groups – the Malinké, a northern group that tends to vote for the RHDP, and the Baoulé, a subgroup of the Akan with roots in the centre that is more aligned with the PDCI. They were vying for control of the town’s government.

Other fault lines are also primed to open up. The exclusion of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé, whose Ivorian Popular Front supporters normally hail from the country’s west and some parts of the south, will likely put those supporters at odds with northerners and parties most closely associated with them. Meanwhile, the exclusion of Soro, who backed Ouattara against Gbagbo in the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis, risks rekindling the rift in the north of the country that mirrors friction between the now defunct Forces Nouvelles rebels, once led by Soro, and several pro-Ouattara mayors who occupied posts during the period of the country’s partition (2002-2012) and who had to compete with rebel administrators for shares of local taxation and resources.

The country’s security apparatus has yet to be drawn into this year’s electoral politics, but that might change.

The country’s security apparatus has yet to be drawn into this year’s electoral politics, but that might change. The army is essentially a patchwork of cohorts recruited by successive regimes, which at different times have favoured different ethnic groups. These cohorts lack cohesion and owe their allegiance to various political operators, creating a high risk that the military could fragment along partisan lines if there is a prolonged political crisis. Among political figures who enjoy a measure of loyalty from within the armed forces is Soro, who held the post of prime minister from 2007 to 2012 and still benefits from some residual allegiance of army commanders. As part of its own separate campaign, the PDCI appointed retired general Michel Gueu, who directed Soro’s military cabinet when he was prime minister and still enjoys ties to the armed forces, as its new vice president.

Contestation Risks

With political tensions simmering, disputed management of the election could serve as the spark that ignites a sustained conflict. Under current circumstances it is very difficult to envisage a peaceful election and a result that would be accepted by all if, from the start, the two sides do not agree on certain fundamental matters relating to the election. A delay in the election due to COVID-19, which at the time of writing had resulted in over 2,150 reported cases and 28 deaths, could also spark disagreements if not managed carefully.

The Independent Electoral Commission, which is responsible for organising and supervising the election, could be an important forum for defusing tensions, but only if the parties agree to stand by their positions on it. Three of the commission’s seats are allocated to political parties close to President Ouattara, one is appointed by the president and another by the minister of interior, six go to members of civil society who are meant to be independent (though opposition politicians have doubts as to their independence) and four are apportioned to opposition parties. The government granted an additional opposition seat on 4 March to address the opposition’s complaints of commission bias. This gesture has, however, still not persuaded the PDCI to join. The appointment of a commission president from the north of the country, the ruling party’s stronghold, is also perceived by the opposition as a further sign of the institution’s bias.

The COVID-19 crisis also risks derailing preparations.

The COVID-19 crisis also risks derailing preparations. Initially scheduled between 18 April and 2 May, the revision of the voter list by the electoral commission has been postponed and is now intended to take place between 10 and 22 June, with the list to be posted by the end of July as required by law. In its current form, the voter list counts roughly the same number as in 2010, even though the country’s population has since that time grown by an estimated 30 per cent. The commission must also provide a complete map of the polling stations and create a comprehensive plan for distribution of electoral materials and centralisation of the results. A consensus must also be found among political parties to choose the company that will transmit and process the voting data and tally results. The new electoral code, adopted by decree on 8 April due to the impossibility of assembling parliament for a debate in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, is still not accepted by the PDCI, which on 18 May said it refuses “to ratify laws that generate conflict”.

While an eventual postponement of the vote might help with completion of electoral preparations and create additional room for the government and opposition parties to iron out any disagreements, the authorities’ unilateral decision to delay could be seen by the opposition as an effort for the president to stay in charge and would risk a violent reaction. It will therefore be important that any such decision be reached mutually through negotiations among the ruling and opposition parties.

What Role for the EU and Member States?

The European Union and its member states, working closely with the Economic Community of West African States and the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, should encourage dialogue among Côte d’Ivoire’s political parties. In the same vein, they should underscore the importance of forging a broad political consensus around the details of any postponement of the October election.

Another objective should be to persuade the PDCI to start actively participating in the electoral commission, which is important both for purposes of giving them and their constituents a say in how the election is conducted, and of establishing a check on the commission’s activities. While the PDCI’s participation in the commission is no guarantee against opposition parties contesting the election’s final results, the risks of a dispute would be considerably higher if the PDCI continues to boycott the commission, thereby calling into question the legitimacy of its actions before voters even go to the polls.

The EU can also help mitigate risks of a disputed election by deploying a strong electoral observation system to the country.

The EU can also help mitigate risks of a disputed election by deploying, to the extent feasible in light of the pandemic, a strong electoral observation system to the country. Given the importance of this election and the possibility that its results will be contested, the mission should be at least as big in terms of staffing and resources as the one the EU deployed during the 2010 election, which took place under similarly tense conditions. As soon as the COVID-19 crisis will allow, the EU and its member states should also invest in training voting agents. Such agents can help minimise the number of possible irregularities, such as failure to properly seal ballot boxes or improperly drafted minutes that record whether a given polling station followed correct electoral procedures. Such irregularities can raise suspicions of foul play and spark potentially violent local disputes.

The EU and its member states should also support the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in calling for the release of the nineteen Soro collaborators who have been in detention since December. Their release would be an important gesture that might help reduce growing friction between Ouattara and Soro supporters, particularly in the north of the country.

Finally, the EU should encourage its member states, African partners and other countries with ties to Côte d’Ivoire to first, deliver a common message about the need for antagonistic political forces to sort out their disputes peacefully and cooperate in conducting a credible and transparent election, and second, apply concerted pressure on individuals and groups who might spoil these efforts.

As the 2010 election cycle demonstrated, neither a transparent election nor international pressure is guaranteed to protect Côte d’Ivoire from a new cycle of political violence. But without them, risks of a resumption of conflict, already considerable, will be higher still.