Côte d’Ivoire and the ‘third-term’ virus

The events that unfolded in Côte d’Ivoire in early August 2020, marked by protests, violence and death, are reminiscent of the country’s darkest hours, particularly the 2000 and 2010/2011 post-election crises. Developments over the past couple of months point to a likely rise in tensions around the presidential elections, scheduled to take place on 31 October 2020.

Regional bodies such as the African Union (AU) should try to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents by taking earlier action against opportunistic constitutional amendments or interpretations aimed at prolonging presidential mandates.

Regional bodies such as the AU should try to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents by taking earlier action against opportunistic constitutional amendments or interpretations

The first protest erupted in response to former president Laurent Gbagbo’s name being removed from the voter’s roll. A group of young people, supporters of Gbagbo’s Popular Ivorian Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien [FPI]) staged a demonstration in front of the offices of the electoral commission.

More protests took place in Abidjan and other parts of the country against current President Alassane Ouattara’s decision to run for a controversial third term. The ruling party has justified Ouattara’s bid on the basis that the constitutional amendment of November 2016 gives him a clean slate under the new republic. Critics, however, see this as a slippery slope and have called for regional bodies to reject such arguments.

Ouattara’s about-turn

In a much-anticipated moment, on 5 March 2020, Ouattara (78) announced that he would not run for a third term and had decided ‘to transfer power to a young generation’.

The ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix [RHDP]) nominated Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as its candidate. The ailing Gon Coulibaly, however, died on 8 July 2020. Left without a candidate, RHDP cadres almost unanimously called for Ouattara to stand for a third term.

‘Confronted with this case of force majeure and as a duty-bound citizen, I have decided to favourably respond to my compatriots’ call for me to stand as candidate for the 31 October presidential elections. I am therefore a candidate for the 31 October 2020 presidential election,’ Ouattara tweeted on 6 August 2020.

The RHDP is adamant that Ouattara’s candidacy will preserve peace and stability in the country.

The RHDP is adamant that Ouattara’s candidacy will preserve peace and stability in the country

Although the constitution sets a two-term limit for the president, the RHDP claims that Ouattara is allowed to run for a third term under the new constitution, passed on 8 November 2016. It argues that Ouattara’s second term began under the Second Republic, governed by the 2000 constitution, whereas this new term would be under the Third Republic, as per the November 2016 constitution. By that logic, Ouattara could remain in power until 2030.

The opposition, however, has dismissed the ‘Third Republic’ argument as spurious. It argues that a third term for Ouattara is unconstitutional and would in any case go against the letter and spirit of the constitution, as well as the democratic principle of change in power.

Others contend that the death of Gon Coulibaly does not constitute a case of force majeure and the RHDP is simply using this as an excuse to justify Ouattara’s candidacy.

Resetting the clock

Ouattara is not the first African head of state to seek a controversial third term. Far from it. Many before him have amended their constitutions with the sole aim of removing a constitutional prohibition on a third term. Some have succeeded, while others such as former Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré have failed and so lost power.

More recently, Guinea’s President Alpha Condé (82), in a contentious political climate marked by protests and violence, held a referendum amending the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. Condé was nominated by the ruling Rally of the Guinean People (Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée [RPG]) as its candidate for the 18 October 2020 presidential election, ironically on the same day as his neighbour Ouattara.

The parallel seems uncanny, because Condé’s supporters rely on exactly the same argument as those of Ouattara, claiming that the new constitution resets the counter for presidential terms to zero.

Condé’s supporters rely on exactly the same argument as those of Ouattara, claiming that the new constitution resets the counter for presidential terms to zero

In slightly different circumstances, former Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza had used a very similar argument to legalise and legitimise his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election in Burundi.

The virus of ‘a third term at all costs’ poses a serious risk to the entrenchment and consolidation of democratic norms and practices in Africa. This is especially the case when heads of state use subterfuge to torpedo or interpret constitutions contrary to the principle of (peaceful) change of power.

The ultimate and deplorable risk is instability and the institutional tango that results from the confiscation of power by those who refuse to vacate their office.

At an Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) heads of state meeting on the military takeover in Mali, Guinea Bissau’s president Umaro Sissoco Embalò reportedly stated that while the military coup in Mali must be condemned, third terms should also be deemed coups d’états and be rejected.

Political manoeuvrings

The RHDP’s choice for Ouattara as replacement for Gon Coulibaly can be explained in great part by the fact that another political heavyweight, former president Henri Konan Bédié (86), was officially nominated on 26 July as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire [PDCI]).

The RHDP, it seems, feels that only Ouattara has the stature to compete against Bédié or another candidate that a coalition of opposition parties could support in a possible second round.

In a recent interview, Bédié said that the main opposition had made an electoral deal that would see them backing a single candidate in a second round against the RHDP, should that scenario play out.

This agreement includes Bédié’s PDCI and Gbagbo’s FPI, as well as movements led by former prime minister and speaker of the national assembly Guillaume Soro and former minister and youth leader Charles Blé Goudé.

Gbagbo and Blé Goudé have both been acquitted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, where they were held for eight and six years, respectively. The restrictions placed on their movements were also lifted. Both have expressed their intention to return to Côte d’Ivoire and have applied for Ivorian passports in order to travel home; the government has stated that it is reviewing the applications.

Former first lady Simone Gbagbo has urged Ouattara to allow Gbagbo to return home and warned that keeping him away from his native land would not further peace and reconciliation in the country.

Meanwhile, Gbagbo, Blé Goudé and Soro have each been sentenced by Ivorian courts to 20 years in prison for various crimes. As a result, Gbagbo and Soro have been removed from the voter’s roll, with the obvious implication that they cannot contest the October 2020 presidential polls. None of this bodes well for the country’s peace and stability going into the elections.

All stakeholders must play their part

The Ivorian political class must come to genuine agreement on certain rules and, in addition, commit to respecting them for the preservation of peace in the country. They must also work toward true reconciliation and build a country where future generations will not inherit the evil of a fractured society.

Finally, regional bodies such as ECOWAS and continental entities such as the AU should work harder to ensure that constitutions are not tampered with to the detriment of the consolidation of democratic institutions. If unconstitutional changes of government are rejected, so too should opportunistic constitutional amendments or interpretations.

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