The Monkey Cage on Ivorian elections: local grievances are not what matters most

The Ivorian elections are approaching, and many academics who have worked on Cote d’Ivoire are spreading their thoughts in the blogsphere. Here you find Sophie Rosenberg on Africanarguments and here is Marco Wyss on the LSE blog. While I do not have much to comment about Sophie and Marco’s posts, since I agree with them on most points, I am a bit disappointed by the Monkey Cage piece on the Ivorian elections. The Monkey Cage is a great blog and I am a huge fan of it, but I found the post by Matthew Mitchell and rather superficial when it comes to current Ivorian events.

To begin, they start with the claim that “many analysts and Ivorian citizens believe (or hope) that the economic boom will help defuse political hostilities between the opposition parties, led by the Front Populaire Ivoirien, and President Alassane Ouattara’s ruling party, Rassemblement des Républicains. The underlying assumption is that with a growing economy, the ruling party can consolidate political support and reduce the likelihood of a closely contested election”.

Who are those analysts and Ivorian citizens? Sources are not cited and it is not surprising, because none in Cote d’Ivoire (or who is well informed about Cote d’Ivoire) is making such claim. Especially as poverty has not reduced proportionally to GDP growth – according to a recent survey by the National Institute of Statistics, only 2.5% since 2008. The other problem is that the sentence seems to imply that we should be happy that the likelihood of a contested election has been reduced. While it is true that this is making electoral violence on a large scale unlikely, this is far from being a good new for the future of Cote d’Ivoire.

In a subsequent paragraph, however, the authors claim, quite in contradiction with the previous argument, that “President Ouattara’s efforts to consolidate political support have hampered peacebuilding”. This is on many respects true, but if Ouattara has to be blamed, let’s blame him for what he has actually done wrong. Mitchell and Klaus claim that “the government has sidestepped serious land reforms and avoided prosecuting crimes associated with the post-election violence. And the government isn’t doing much to disarm the former pro-Gbagbo militias, and even less to disarm those that supported Ouattara”.

The first statement is partly true: unfortunately, however, the problem of land reform is so complex and registering rural property so expensive and time consuming that no Ivorian government has done much. In spite of his claims, Gbagbo as well did not advance much with the objective of getting the customary rights of the autochtonous populations (his own supporters) officialized. But land tenure grievances in Cote d’Ivoire  are increasingly intra-ethnic (sometimes intra-familiar) and it is not sure that the connection between land grievances and political violence is so direct as Klaus and Mitchell claim.

About post election crimes, they are indeed being prosecuted: the problem is that only one side up to now has been targeted – the Gbagbo side of course. There has been no “de facto amnesty for elites involved in 2010-2011 electoral violence” and many supporters of the former Ivorian regime are still detained or are awaiting trial – Gbagbo’s wife Simone being the most famous. Biased transitional justice, something I had occasion to comment upon, is not ideal but in the Ivorian context perhaps inhevitable, and it has to be said that the International Criminal Court has been until now not much better than the Ivorian tribunals. Moreover, the relationship between transitional justice and peace is complex and it is not clear why amnesties for human right abuses should be celebrated as a step towards peacebuilding in some countries (South Africa being the most famous exemple) and branded as a recipee for future violence in others. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire the rhetoric of the struggle against impunity has become a convenient excuse to keep pro-Gbagbo militants in jail.

As for DDR, Ouattara has made a substantial effort to address the problem, creating a special DDR authority directly under his supervision. Unfortunately, the authority has inherited a series of fragmentary and poorly compiled lists of former combatants by previous DDR institutions. Nevertheless, it has done efforts to gain the trust of pro-Gbagbo combatants and many of them have received a demobilization package, training and other benefits. I am not claiming that there have not been injustices in the process, with many real former combatants excluded and some false combatants brought in by New Forces commanders and other “gatekeepers”, but to blame Ouattara for failed DDR seems to me unfair.

Klaus and Mitchell are clearly indebted to a very popular recent trend in peace and conflict studies: the “local turn” that emphasizes the importance of local grievances in peacebuilding. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that such a focus is warranted in the current Ivorian context. The article barely touches the (national-level) factors that to me pose the real serious threats for the future of the country: the (re)consolidation of a de facto single-party system, biased and inefficient electoral institutions and growing internal rivalry within the RDR party for Ouattara’s succession. If there will be a future conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, it will arguably not revolve around the cleavages of 2010-2011, but it will most likely involve Northern politicians who have supported Ouattara at the time of the post election crisis in 2010-2011.

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Côte d’Ivoire 2015 presidential polls. A low risk election?

In one week, Côte d’Ivoire will hold presidential elections – the first after the 2010-2011 post-election crisis. The Istituto degli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI) based in Milan asked me to write a commentary. ISPI has not officially published it yet, but I offer it in avant prèmiere to the readers of this blog. Please cited it as Piccolino, G. ‘Côte d’Ivoire 2015 presidential polls. A low risk election?’, ISPI Commentary, 2015. 


The 2015 presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire will be on many respects different from the 2010 election that spurred the resumption of the Ivorian civil war. There is no comparable risk of violence and it seems likely that the elections will be peaceful, with minor sporadic incidents. However, the positive impact of the election on democratization and peacebuilding is questionable.

The 2010 Ivorian presidential election took place in a post-conflict context after having been postponed for five years. Côte d’Ivoire was divided since 2002 between a Northern half occupied by the insurgent Forces Nouvelles (FN) and a Southern half under control of president Laurent Gbagbo. After the conclusion of a peace agreement in 2007, the elections were seen as another major step towards achieving the reunification of the country and the return to normality. The polls pitted the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, supported by the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), against the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP), an alliance including the other two major Ivorian parties, the Rassemblement Des Républicains (RDR) chaired by Alassane Ouattara and the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) of former president Henri Konan Bédié. Ouattara and Bédié both ran for presidency, but when the Ouattara passed the first round, Bédié and the PDCI supported him against Gbagbo. The 2010 poll was an unusually open election, with all the three main candidates having a chance to reimport the scrutiny. Another singular feature of the 2010 elections was the level of international monitoring. Not only all the major international and regional organizations deployed observers, but the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), head of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), was asked to ‘certify’ all the stages of the electoral process. When Gbagbo and the Constitutional Council, controlled by a pro-incumbent chairman, refused to recognize the results proclaimed by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the SRSG sided with the IEC, supporting Ouattara as the winner of the elections. A major crisis followed until Ouattara, supported by the FN and by the military intervention of French and UN peacekeepers, managed to get control of the South of the country and its main city Abidjan. Although the 2010 election is often associated to the post electoral crisis, it should be also remembered that it was arguably the fairest presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire’s history.

The stakes in the forthcoming election, which takes place four years and a half after the installation of president Ouattara, are much lower. As a consequence of three major developments, it seems almost sure that the incumbent president will be reconfirmed for a second mandate, possibly without a run-off.

First, with what has become known as the ‘Daoukro Appeal’, PDCI president Henri Konan Bédié declared one year ago his support for Ouattara and the decision of the PDCI not to present a candidate. Bédié, who cannot himself run again for the presidency, being beyond the Constitutional limit of seventy-five years of age, has been accused by a faction of his party of undermining the PDCI interest. Several former PDCI politicians have decided to run as independent candidates. However, because of lack of support from their party and of their own flaws, they are unlikely to pose a real challenge to Ouattara. The most important independent candidate is former prime minister Charles Konan Banny. Although he has been recently nominated president of the Coalition pour le Changement, the main coalition opposing Ouattara’s re-election, Banny is not very popular among the Ivorian public. Most Ivorians see his engagement as president of the Commission Dialogue Vérité et Reconciliation, a commission created to address the problems of truth-seeking and reconciliation after the 2010-2011 crisis, as an utter failure. While Banny has made repeated efforts to attract Gbagbo’s former supporters, his political history does not make him entirely credible among them.

The second key event has been the split of the FPI party and the decision of the splinter faction to boycott the presidential elections. At the beginning of 2015 a major crisis pitted party president Pascal Affi N’guessan, released in 2013 after two years of detention, and the ‘old-guard’ of the party, represented by men like the then vice-president Aboudramane Sangaré and former interim president Laurent Akoun. The affaire went into court and Affi N’guessan, now a presidential candidate, obtained the exclusive legal right to use the party name and logo. However, it is currently the splinter faction that retains the support of most of Gbagbo’s former electors. It is backed by the former president himself, who continue to play a major role in Ivorian politics in spite of being detained by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. While some partisans of Gbagbo might vote for Affi N’guessan, Konan Banny or for other opposition candidates, it is likely that the majority will follow the appeal to boycott the polls.

The third obstacle on Ouattara’s road has been removed on 10 September, when the Constitutional Council has declared him eligible in the elections. This decision overrode a previous decision of the Constitutional Council, which prevented Ouattara from running in the 2000 presidential elections on the basis of article 35 of the then new Ivorian Constitution. Article 35 states that a presidential candidate should be born of an Ivorian father and mother they themselves born Ivorian; in addition, he must never have claimed a nationality other than the Ivorian one. Ouattara clearly does not met the second condition and possibly neither the first: it is widely believed in Côte d’Ivoire that article 35 was meant to exclude him from politics. In the 2010 elections, the incumbent president was allowed to be a candidate on an exceptional basis as part of the peace negotiations. The president denounced in the past the exclusivist nature of article 35 and was expected to start a process of reform once in power. He has however never done it, possibly because, according to the law, is not fully confident that the result of a Constitutional referendum would be favourable. Last February, however, Constitutional Council president Francis Wodié, a man widely reputed for his integrity, resigned in unclear circumstances. It has been his successor, Mamadou Koné, a president’s loyalist, who has taken the decision on Ouattara’s eligibility.

While a number of donor organizations and NGOs have launched activities aiming at reducing the risk of electoral violence, a large scale confrontation does not seem likely. In addition to appointing a new head of the Constitutional Council, Ouattara has revised the composition of the IEC in a manner that is favourable to him and a scenario comparable to 2010 is highly improbable. In general, the elections will not be competitive enough to turn violent.

Considering the low stakes of the poll, the European Union has declared that it will not send electoral observers. Its example will be most likely followed by other non African observer organizations. At the same time, the electoral mandate of UNOCI has been dramatically reduced and the SRSG has not anymore the role of certificator. Unfortunately, this sends a very detrimental message to the Ivorian public: that double standards are applied and that Ouattara, differently from Gbagbo, is allowed to control the electoral process without external checks. While it contributed to enforce the elections results in 2010, the world is now watching without reactions what risks to become the de facto consolidation of a semi-authoritarian regime. Indeed, although it proclaims its adherence to democracy, the RHDP is clearly nostalgic of the single-party era of first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The government’s record in respecting civil liberties is questionable: many Gbagbo partisans are detained without a proper trial and demonstrations organized by pro-Gbagbo groups others than the pro-Affi faction of the FPI are routinely denied authorizations and dispersed by the police. The FPI split itself appears to have been in part instigated by the Ouattara regime, in order to weaken the opposition. Although massive violence will probably not take place during the elections, the Ivorian society remains strongly polarized. Gbagbo’s partisans, who are not a few (the incumbent president received 45% of the votes in 2010), deem, rightly or wrongly, that they are treated unjustly and marginalized since the end of the conflict. There is thus a risk that reconciliation will not be served by this election. The main responsibility for this situation is, of course, of the Ivorian political forces themselves, both those in the government and in the opposition. However, the international community should not give the impression that it considers that, because of the relative absence of electoral violence, Côte d’Ivoire has fully overcome the 2002-2011 crisis.

Alassane Ouattara’s official campaign video:


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