On 29 July 2019 former presidents of Côte d’Ivoire Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo met in Brussels, where Gbagbo has been cloistered in exile since his acquittal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on crimes against humanity.
This meeting between the president of the Ivorian Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire [PDCI-RDA]) and the founder of the Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien [FPI]), the umpteenth episode in the Ivorian political game, inevitably reshuffles the cards of the country's future as it nears the 2020 presidential election.
The question facing the international community, particularly the African Union (AU), its Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is what role they could or should play in the reconstruction of post-conflict states such as Côte d’Ivoire, and therefore in the prevention of a possible eruption of old tensions into armed conflagrations.
The current political context in Côte d’Ivoire, characterised by shifting political alliances between major allies, disagreements around the reform of the electoral commission, and a military that does not seem sufficiently integrated, presents major challenges in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
The spectre of another political crisis, or even a bloody scenario that must be avoided at all costs, is hovering over Côte d’Ivoire. The AU, PSC and ECOWAS should swiftly engage all Ivoirian stakeholders to help them iron out their differences. This is necessary to ensure a peaceful electoral campaign and polls.
A troubled recent past
Côte d’Ivoire slid into conflict after the military overthrew Bédié in December 1999 and installed Gen. Robert Guéï in power.
Despite the relative calm brought about by the Linas-Marcoussis (2003), Accra (2004) and Pretoria (2005) agreements, the country remained divided between the north and the south and in a state of instability.
The 2007 Ouagadougou agreement, another attempt to make peace, somehow managed to reunite the territory and resolve the crucial question of the eligibility criteria for the presidency. These had excluded Alassane Dramane Ouattara in particular from the race.
The disputed presidential election of December 2010 again plunged Côte d’Ivoire into a deadly crisis that claimed more than 3 000 lives. Gbagbo refused to yield power to Ouattara, after first one and then the other was declared the winner by key electoral management bodies (the Constitutional Council for the former and the National Independent Electoral Commission for the latter).
The 2010–2011 crisis suggests that the institutional question concerning the electoral process and therefore the impartiality of electoral management bodies is not really resolved. This despite the fact that it forms an integral part of the various agreements, including Ouagadougou.
Today, political actors (government and opposition) are in open disagreement about the latest reforms of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). These were recently adopted by a parliament largely dominated by the ruling party, the Rally of Houphouëtistes for Democracy and Peace (Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix [RHDP]). In 2016 the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights had ordered the Ivorian government to reform the CEI.
The adoption of the new framework for the composition of the CEI was neither unanimous nor consensual. The opposition has denounces a balance of power that still favours the ruling party, which would keep control over one of the key electoral management bodies.
Mutinies in the Ivorian army in 2017 and 2018 add to the political dissent. The rumble – which also involves soldiers demobilised in 2011 – began in Bouaké, the former rebel headquarters. Many of these rebels have since been integrated into the Ivorian regular army. Former rebels have asked the government to make bonus payments dating back to 2011, when they had backed Ouattara after Gbagbo's refusal to abdicate power.
It appears as though the Ivorian army is the victim of its inadequate integration – one of the problems that the 2016–2020 military programming law (loi de programmation militaire) is struggling to address.
Taking the same and starting again
In 2010 the electoral contest revolved around three major political parties, namely Bédié's PDCI-RDA, Gbagbo's FPI and Ouattara's RDR. The last two reached the second round, after which Bédié rallied behind Ouattara under the RHDP platform.
The recent transformation of the RHDP into a unified political party does not have the approval of all the members of the platform, especially the PDCI-RDA. Bédié – who in September 2014 had launched the so-called ‘Daoukro call’ to vote for Ouattara in the first round of the 2015 presidential election – denounced the latter for reneging on his promise to support a PDCI-RDA candidate in 2020. The umbilical cord being cut, Bédié is now attempting a rapprochement with Gbagbo's FPI ahead of the election campaign for 2020.
Another important man in the equation, Guillaume Soro (president of the National Assembly until February 2019 and former secretary general of the rebel Forces Nouvelles that helped bring Ouattara to power in 2011), having also refused to join the RHDP, is positioning himself for 2020. He has rallied two political parties to his cause, and is also said to be in talks with Bédié.
An alliance among Bédié, Gbagbo and Soro for the 2020 presidential election would undoubtedly shake Ouattara’s regime, if it does not make it fall. It should be noted that Gbagbo, Ouattara, Bédié and Soro were the main signatories of the 2007 Ouagadougou agreement. Their interactions before that were marked by even more animosity. Since then, alliances have been formed and disbanded and continue to play a major role in Ivorian political life.
It is necessary to prevent, at all costs, having the country torn apart again by partisan and personal interests. While the primary responsibility for peace rests with the country's main political (and military) actors, the AU, the PSC and ECOWAS could do a lot to help.
Rebuilding and preventing conflict go hand in hand
The AU, in particular its PSC, is mandated to prevent conflicts on the continent. Côte d’Ivoire has had a turbulent history since the demise of Felix Houphouët-Boigny and the subsequent division of the country. This became more pronounced in the first decade of the 21st century. In the face of this, the continent should have supported Côte d’Ivoire in a more sustained manner.
When Gbagbo refused to leave power in 2011, the PSC suspended Côte d’Ivoire while ECOWAS threatened to take military action to dislodge him. These two institutions should have taken the full measure of the Ivorian situation and not limited their action to ensuring that Ouattara assumes power as a solution to a crisis that has contaminated the entire body politic and society.
The AU and the PSC have tools at their disposal that they could have used to support Côte d’Ivoire after 2011. It should be noted that The Gambia, which had a post-election crisis in 2017 more or less similar to that of Côte d'Ivoire in 2011, was recently visited by the PSC to assess the country's progress in consolidating its institutions.
The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process in Côte d'Ivoire has been, in many ways, a success. Yet security sector reform, particularly that of the military, has not been completely successful, as evidenced by the 2017–2018 mutinies.
There is also no consensus that national reconciliation is a reality in the country, with some arguing that such claims amount to little more than political posturing. However, it is indisputable that the question of reforming the CEI will continue to be a major stumbling block between the government and opposition and could, if left unresolved, cause serious upheaval.
In this context, the continent could help to further reconciliation. The Panel of the Wise (part of the African Peace and Security Architecture) could ensure, for example, that a consensus is reached on divisive issues ahead of the 2020 election. The chairperson of the AU Commission could also make use of his good offices. A wait-and-see attitude is certainly not a viable approach.