Ivory Coast’s Presidential Election 2020 – The Gbagbo Factor

In recent decades Ivory Coast has proved to be something of a bell-weather country for political and economic stability across West Africa, which makes the fact that there is such an alarming knowledge deficit about it in the Anglosphere particularly regrettable. Politically the situation has proved something of a maelstrom, with matters set to intensify in the months leading up to the 2020 Presidential Elections. The trial of the erstwhile President Koudou Laurent Gbagbo at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has certainly added to the drama. All this calls for some exploration and examination of the dramatis personae who are shaping events and a redefinition of the political landscape and geopolitical paradigms prior to the 2020 Presidential Elections.

Creation of the RHDP and the Quest for Power

Pivotal to any understanding of the current dynamic lies in appreciating the significance of the strategic alliance that resulted in the RHDP (Rassemblement des Houphouetistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix) founded in Paris in 2005 during the first Ivorian Conflict (2002-2010). The RHDP was founded by reputable members of the political opposition that included Alassane Ouattara of Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) and Henri Konan Bedie of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), who had been President of Ivory Coast from 1993-1999. This alliance’s primary objective was to topple the then President, Koudou Laurent Gbagbo with the military support of former rebels led by Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, allegedly backed by some neighbouring countries including Burkina Faso under its then President Blaise Compaoré and the active connivance and support of the French. The RHDP finally took power in 2011 after the bloody post-election crisis in which President Gbabgo had initially refused to accept defeat.

The 2010 Presidential Elections were marked by allegations of irregularities emanating from all sides. Whilst not unique to Africa, such accusations are commonplace not least because electoral commissions often lack the staff and resources in order to carry out sufficient monitoring and thus can often come across as paper tigers. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the disarmament of the former rebels of Guillaume Soro (then an ally of Alassane Ouattara) had not been totally achieved, a significant factor as they controlled some 60% of the country that included the entire north, much of the west, the centre and part of the east, as for the south that was under the control of the Gbagbo regime. Undoubtedly such a situation could have lent itself to irregularities, and certainly helped drive the rumour mill. Towns and cities under the control of former rebels appeared to have more voters than there were registered voters and there were stories of voter intimidation, especially of those intending to vote for candidates other than Ouattara. Whilst verification of such incidents was not always possible, a number were confirmed by national and international observers. The Opposition also accused the Gbagbo regime of having committed irregularities in some of the poll centres in the areas under its control. Clearly there are questions as to whether the election should have been conducted in such an unsatisfactory and seemingly partisan situation. Elections by their very nature tend to lead to a febrile atmosphere and certainly events in Ivory Coast were going to become all more frenetic and potentially volatile following what happened after the first round of voting in the Presidential Elections. An extraordinary thing happened with one candidate, Ouattara, who was initially in third place behind Gbagbo and Bedie being permitted to proceed to the 2nd round after 600,000 votes were apparently added to his total to the detriment of Bedie who was then knocked out of the Presidential race. Bedie gave way with a reasonable degree of good grace, after having been believed to have succumbed to external pressure and promises connected with the RHDP. Such goings on provided grounds for suspicion among Gbabgo supporters who voiced their indignation about the safety and validity of the results of the 2nd round to the Electoral Commission (CEI), which itself was suspected by them being in cahoots with the Opposition. Indeed, each party issued a statement about the vote (Procès Verbal) that invariably included their concerns that needed to be harmonized with those of the Electoral Commission before the results could be announced. Allegedly, even this was not condcuted properly according to disgruntled Gbagbo supporters. Tension was rising, especially in the Gbagbo camp where there was growing suspicion that a stitch-up was in process. When it was discovered that the results were to be announced in the hotel that had been serving as Ouattara’s campaign base with the approval of the International community this seemed to add insult to injury, doubly so as Ouattara was to be announced as winner. Gbagbo and his supporters refused to accept the results. Whilst offering to; “Let’s sit and discuss” Gbabgo voiced the need for a re-run of the election, something Ouattara and his supporters simply would not countenance. A stalemate existed, one that had the potential to paralyse the country or worse. The two camps declared their own results, Ouattara through the Electoral Commission recognized by the international community and Gbagbo through the Constitutional Council recognized by the People of Ivory Coast: Electoral Commission – Koudou Laurent Gbagbo 46% Alassande Ouattara 54% Constitutional Council – Koudou Laurent Gbagbo 51% Alassande Ouattara 49% Each candidate went on to hold their own Presidential Inaugurations. The situation was intolerable and soon Ivory Coast found itself on the slippery slope to civil war. Reflecting on the tragic events of 2010 onwards there is every likelihood that Gbagbo would not have won the Presidential Election, especially given the recent configurations in Ivorian politics are taken into consideration, as these indicate that alliances are necessary for victory. Indeed, if Bedie had progressed to the 2nd round he could have been supported by Ouattara and Soro according to the purpose of the RHDP and thus seriously challenge Gbagbo who, despite his popularity was suffering from the wearing effect of being in power almost 11 years. Gbagbo’s tenure in office had been strongly disturbed by a rebellion sponsored from abroad, and he was dogged by allegations of corruption, cronyism, scandals and mismanagement which constituted a body of reasons why the average Ivorian might opt for an Opposition candidate. Sometimes being in power gives the illusion that it will not cease whatever the circumstances. This is what appears to be happening to the RHDP currently. However, due to the major concerns and allegations of massive fraud which undoubtedly changed the course of the events, the best solution would have been to discuss such matters seriously and if necessary cancel the elections and resume it within the timeframe allowed by the Constitution as happened in Kenya with the Presidential Elections opposing the incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta to his challenger Raila Odinga. In 2010 various African and international leaders prevailed upon the Ivorian President to accept the results of the election, but instead his intransigence exacerbated matters and fuelled loyalist versus opposition violence on an alarming scale. A UN authorised military mission, which saw unprecedented involvement by the French, was instrumental in seeing Gbagbo removed from power. According to some credible sources there may have been a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between Alassane Ouattara, Henri Konan Bedie and Guillaume Kigbafori Soro to give both political and military support for Ouattara to become the Ivorian President and then ensure a peaceful transition of power to the party of Bedie in 2020 by supporting the PDCI’s designated candidate for the Presidential Elections just as Bedie had done for Ouattara twice before in the Presidential Elections of 2010 and 2015. The current President apparently is bound by a similar promise made to Soro, who was perceived at the time as a successor to President Ouattara among leaders hailing from the influential Northern Region. Indeed, Soro was the President of the National Assembly and could constitutionally replace Ouattara in exceptional circumstances such as his becoming physically or mentally incapacitated, dismissal/impeachment, resignation, delegation of power, resignation or death in office. Soro’s rebellion against the regime of former President Gbagbo, his military success in 2011 and the various key positions that he has occupied at a state level have added to his credentials. In addition, Soro has a very significant standing among the peoples of the north of the country, he has some powerful connections to allies in Ouattara’s own RDR who view the former rebel leader as a natural successor to Ouattara. Unfortunately, the RHDP promises on which the alliance was made are very difficult to respect, after all you cannot reasonably promise the same thing to two persons.

Dismantling of the RHDP

There is an Ivorian saying that states that – Power cannot be shared like a public bench, and this in many ways underscores the realities facing that RHDP alliance. Realpolitik and power management have resulted in the alliance proving to be inefficient and difficult to sustain. President Ouattara in an attempt to strengthen his hand and that of the RDR (his own political party) has worked progressively to reduce the influence of his two allies. A year after his re-election in 2015 Ouattara pressed for the adoption of a new constitution which practically disqualified Soro from any possible chance of succeeding him as President of the Republic. Mutinies by former rebels supposedly encouraged by Soro periodically took place in January through to May 2017 and shook the country and were an expression of the anger (and intended to be a threat) felt in response to the said constitutional change. Since then Ouattara and Soro have engaged in a serious battle of wills, a battle that has become ever more intense as 2020 approaches. Furthermore, Bedie soon appreciated that Ouattara would not necessarily support his candidature (as the PDCI candidate) for the 2010 elections. Bedie’s suspicion was aroused when Ouattara suggested that the RHDP alliance be dissolved and instead become a unified party that would select the most suitable candidate to stand for the 2020 Presidential Elections. Such a suggestion, even it was genuine at first, was perceived by Bedie and the PDCI as a ruse by which Ouattara would engineer the promotion of a candidate from his own political party the RDR to the detriment of the PDCI. The PDCI was so outraged by Ouattara’s proposals that it decided to withdraw from the RHDP in August 2018 and prepare its own path to return to power, something it had last held in December 1999.

Confronted by the refusal of Bedie to go along with his scheme Ouattara turned to Soro in a search for an alternative heavyweight political supporter, urging him to register with the RHDP or face deselection as President of the National Assembly, hardly an overture likely to be met with a positive response. Ouattara and his supporters, stemming largely from the RDR and other affiliated parties, launched the unified party of the RHDP with himself at the helm at a congress held on 26th January 2019. Unsurprisingly, in view of their past history Soro refused Ouattara’s ‘offer’ and was forced to resign as President of the National Assembly on 8th February 2019. Undefiant, Soro has become part of the opposition and is rallying his supporters for the Presidential Elections through his new political movement – Le Comité Politique. Whilst Soro has a goodly body of support, it is important to note that there are many Ivorians, especially outside his traditional powerbase in the north of the country, who feel that they can never entirely trust or vote for the former rebel leader. Thus, making alliances look like the only way forward for Soro, and even then, these are not assured in the currrent political climate.

With only a year to crucial elections Ouattara had managed to alienate two principal allies who could themselves find a surprising ally in the form of the former President, Koudou Laurent Gbagbo – a classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The shifting sands of politics being such that certain past enmities if not forgotten are often overlooked, or at least put to one side. Gbagbo having been acquitted by the ICC has already held a historic and possibly decisive meeting on 29th July 2019 with Bedie in Belgium – oh to have been a fly on the wall. The nature of such meetings and possible political machinations have heightened the nervousness of the Ouattara regime and has resulted in increased surveillance of opposition parties and a crackdown on critics, especially those associated with Ouattara’s two former allies. The crackdown and the growing paranoia of the Ouattara regime has led to a growing sense of nervousness, among the population in general, and especially amongst supporters of the regime. In public administration where Ouattara loyalists and supporters invariably ‘rewarded’ with posts and preferment over those sympathies lie elsewhere there is growing concern. Another dangerous undercurrent is the matter of ethnicity, something that is never far below the surface of Ivorian politics and public life. In the private sector access to finance or markets is difficult for those not perceived as Ouattara supporters, with anecdotal evidence of foreign clients and potential investors being actively steered towards those whom the regime happens to deem politically friendly. The Central Government has become extremely slow to make payments to local suppliers for fear that such funds might be used to help finance opposition parties.

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