3 min read
Socio-Political Instability in Ivory Coast

Sako Bakr

On the 31st of October 2020, the people of Ivory Coast went to the ballot box to elect their president. Following the death of Gon Coulibaly, a key favorite in the race, in July 2020, the election was thrown into uncertainty. The ruling party, Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), decided to replace Coulibaly with a familiar face in Ivorian politics, Alassane Dramane Ouattara. In the 2020 elections, Ouattara won a controversial third term, after receiving 94% of the total vote count, amid the opposition parties’ boycott. Ouattara insisted that the new constitution of 2016 allowed him to seek another term, after Ouattara changed the Ivorian constitution for the third time in Ivory Coast's history (allowing him to run again), while the opposition claimed that a third term is illegal, because it violates the Ivorian constitution, which forbids a candidate who has already served two terms. More than 40 people have been killed and thousands have fled the country since Ouattara announced he would run again, with police patrolling on every corner amid outbreaks of violent clashes, mostly in the south-west region of the country. This new upheaval is reminiscent of the crisis of the 2010 elections, which saw more than 3,000 people losing their lives and 1.3 million fleeing the country.

The 2010-2011 crisis was created by the refusal of former President Laurent Gbagbo to acknowledge his electoral defeat at the hands of the current president Ouattara. Since gaining its independence in 1960, Ivory Coast's political arena has been monopolized by the same political figures from the south for roughly five decades, despite the fact that the northern region of the country has a larger population. To prevent political competition, southern leaders amended the constitution, by creating the term Ivorite (the idea of being a “true” Ivorian). This amendment of 1995 required a presidential candidate to have two Ivorian parents, questioning the Ivorian identity of many citizens from the north, Ouattara included, (whose father was alleged to be born in Burkina Faso, although he disputes this). Since many residents of the north came originally from Mali, Burkina Faso and other neighboring countries, this term left thousands of Ivorians feeling humiliated and marginalized, and the law had other very real implications for northern citizens as well. Northerners were unable to obtain identity cards due to a strict enforcement of an identity requirement. This enforcement was possible because, typically, regional area, ethnic group and religion can all be identified by hearing an Ivorians' last name.

This Ivorite rule, preventing Ouattara from being eligible to run in the presidential elections was changed in April of 2007, in a compromise between leaders from the north and south called the Ouagadougou peace agreement, that sought to bridge the national divide by ending the enforcement of this controversial identity requirement and allowing free elections. Finally, after decades of political domination from the South, a northern political candidate (Ouattara) was able to participate and subsequently won the elections for President in 2010. However, the outgoing president at the time, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to hand over power and challenged the legitimacy of the vote count. After fighting between the two sides erupted, the French military intervened and removed Gbagbo from power and Ouattara was sworn into office in the Golf Hotel in Abidjan shortly after.

Once in office, Ouattara pledged to eradicate the use of the term Ivorite and bring back the policies of political inclusion, which defined the legacy of the first Ivorian president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. He also set up a truth and reconciliation commission to try and unify the country, following years of division between the north and south. Though Ouattara asked people to forgive the abuses of the 2010 electoral crises, the mistrust remains between Ouattara’s regime and the opposition, which views the government as illegitimate, even creating an alternative government, leading to waves of arrests by Ouattara’s orders. However, Ouattara later released hundreds of prisoners who were jailed on charges related to the 2020 elections in an effort to appease the southerners and heal the national divide. This effort, along with other appeasement moves made by Ouattara in an attempt to appease the south, has angered many victims of the 2010 civil war who are still largely unsatisfied with the measures taken by the government to hold the perpetrators accountable.

The distrust between the two sides has been deepened even further in recent months when Hamed Bakayoko, Ouattara’s political deputy and considered by many as his political successor, became ill and died on March 10th of 2021. When his replacement, Patrick Achi, became ill and was hospitalized this past month, it strengthened the credibility of the potential for foul play, an idea many Ivoirians believe was created by the south. There was a perception that Ouattara had a hand in them becoming ill, because he wanted to eliminate threats to his power. However, Achi was released from the hospital a few weeks ago and reassured anxious Ivorians that he was fine and returned home, though suspicions remain.

Today there are three challenges for Ivory Coast to overcome to create a better future that works for all Ivorians. The first is building back trust and reconciliation between the various Ivorian ethnic groups from the north and south to ensure political stability in the future. It won't be an easy task for both sides to forget the atrocities, abuses and human rights violations committed against one another in recent years, but political stability is a necessary condition to economic growth, which would be beneficial to all Ivorians. To achieve this, Houphouet Boigny's policy of inclusion should be continued but adapted to new and different circumstances. While there needs to be accountability for the crimes of the south against northern citizens, Ouattara must be careful not to hold everyone from the south accountable, or his goal of unity will fall apart. Similarly, it would be unwise for him to not pursue any justice for the northern victims of the previous conflicts, because that is his main source of support amongst Ivorians. He will have to balance the needs of both sides quite carefully if he wants to achieve his goal to bridge the divide between the north and south.

The second challenge that must be overcome is the problem of corruption. Though corruption is not a unique phenomenon pertaining to the Ivory Coast or Africa for that matter, it's a big problem in the Ivory Coast specifically, and its politicians must be held accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. Ouattra’s predecessor Gbago, was accused of stealing large amounts of money from the cocoa industry and other money meant for government use, for himself. This isn't only a Gbago issue. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2019 (CPI - 2019), the Ivory Coast was ranked 106 highest out of the 180 countries measured in 2019, with over ⅓ of Ivorians (34%) surveyed, reporting a need to pay a bribe to use public services. To guarantee political stability in the future, Ouattara and his government will need to build back people’s trust in the government’s legitimacy by having strict and impartial ways for making sure this type of behavior isn't tolerated.

Finally, Ivory Coast needs some new and preferably younger leadership. Ivory Coast's political arena has been dominated by the same faces for decades. Each of these faces come with their own political baggage and history of worsening this divide. To truly unleash our nation's economic and human potential and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past decades, Ivorians should look to new leadership to buy into Houphouet Boigny’s ideal to "unite and reconcile" and to end the division that has for so long plagued the country. If Ivorians can find a way to put the past to rest and come together, the nation's future will be bright.

* The email will not be published on the website.