Written by Jessica Moody

Ivoirian President Alassane Ouattara has won plaudits for his economic successes, but there are cracks in his democratic facade.

Arresting and expelling opposition politicians and seeking an unconstitutional third term in office are moves typically associated with the types of authoritarian leaders who have little regard for the rule of law, freedom of speech, or human rights and who often come under fire by Western democracies and international aid agencies.

But the case of Ivory Coast is different. In late 2019, President Alassane Ouattara announced that he would stand for an unconstitutional third term in office in the October 2020 election should the leaders of the other main parties, who are also political veterans, do the same.

The announcement brought the Ivoirian leader, who is held in high regard in many Western countries and among aid organizations, a step closer to overturning his country’s legal foundations. Yet in a similar fashion to East Africa’s donor darling, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who in 2015 amended his country’s constitution to allow himself to remain in power for another three terms, Ouattara’s statement was met with little condemnation from the international community.

Ouattara maintains that he can undertake another campaign for the presidency because constitutional amendments introduced in 2016 effectively reset the countdown clock for his terms (an unpopular argument). Should he go through with his plans and stand in the election, there is likely to be significant unrest in both Abidjan and other large cities like Yamoussoukro, Bouaké, and Duékoué.

Either way, the 2020 presidential election is bound to be contentious. It will be the second since the end of a nine-year, on-again-off-again civil war in 2011 and the first in which Ouattara is not legally allowed to stand. If he does not, it will force a change of power, which has not been seen since 2010. That year Ouattara was declared the victor, although incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to stand down, triggering violence that killed more than 3,000 people. Ivoirians are hoping the next transfer of power will not spark such serious unrest.

If Ouattara does run, that will present problems of its own. His latest announcement regarding his candidacy was one in a long line of efforts to tighten the political space and freedom of speech, angering the opposition and pushing it closer to insurrection. Previous moves include constitutional amendments passed in a 2016 referendum, for example, that drove a wedge between the government and much of the population.

The referendum saw only 42 percent participation, yet the government ploughed ahead with considerable reforms anyway, including the creation of a senate. Senatorial elections were subsequently held with little notice, providing minimal time for campaigning. Meanwhile, the government said 33 of the 99 senators would be appointed unilaterally by the president. In a similar vein, in 2019, the president reformed the electoral commission—which was long deemed to be biased in favor of the president—but the opposition lamented that it was barely consulted in the process and that the commission remains partisan.

Perhaps the president’s most controversial moves have been repeated crackdowns on the opposition.

Perhaps the president’s most controversial moves have been repeated crackdowns on the opposition, epitomized by the decision to issue a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader and the former head of the National Assembly, Guillaume Soro, in December. Soro, once an ally of the president, had declared his plans to stand as a candidate in the October election while on a European tour. He was forced to divert his flight back to Abidjan to avoid being taken to prison.

The government claimed it had evidence that Soro was plotting a coup and arrested several of Soro’s key allies, who were alleged to be behind the subversive campaign. The opposition candidate declared he only intended to unseat the government politically and was not involved in fomenting violent unrest.

The specific allegations against Soro are dubious, although he is the former head of the Forces Nouvelles rebel group, which controlled the north of Ivory Coast during the 2002-2011 conflict and retains close ties with hundreds of former combatants, some of whom have since been reinserted into the government and armed forces and remain extremely powerful. These ties have been increasingly scrutinized in recent years as thousands of reintegrated former fighters participated in a series of mutinies in 2014 and 2017, raising valid questions over Soro’s involvement in the military unrest.

His marginalization now though, amid his presidential candidacy announcement and after years of close cooperation with Ouattara, reeks of political motivations. Indeed, the attempt to arrest Soro was merely the culmination of a series of attempts to stigmatize and undermine the opposition that have become increasingly commonplace during Ouattara’s presidency.

In January 2019, Alain Lobognon, a parliamentarian close to Soro, was arrested and sentenced to a year in jail and fined about $520 for posting a “fake news tweet.” The message that Lobognon had posted related to the arrest of a fellow member of parliament. The government argued that the post was intended to incite violence, although Lobognon denied the accusations and claimed his arrest was politically motivated.

Lobognon has not been the only one to make such claims. In October 2019, Jacques Mangoua, a leading figure in the opposition Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire-African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA), was arrested for having munitions and weaponry at his home in N’Guessanrko, a little under 40 miles west of the central town of Bouaké. Subsequently, he was sentenced to five years in prison, although the PDCI claimed that the weapons found at his house had been planted there and that Mangoua had not lived at that home in recent months. Another opposition figure, Nathalie Yamb of the Lider party, was expelled from Ivory Coast in December after she made comments regarding France’s influence over the Ouattara government.

These moves appear to mark a steady drift toward authoritarianism from a leader who has been renowned for his Western-friendly economic and development policies. Ouattara’s Ivory Coast has been a donor and investor darling, repeatedly in the top three fastest-growing economies in Africa since he took power. In 2014 and 2015, the World Bank placed the postwar nation among the top 10 most improved places to do business in the world.

Considerable government spending on infrastructure, supported by the private sector, has helped the country regain its reputation as the financial hub of Francophone West Africa. New roads, banks, and upmarket restaurants appear almost daily.

Ouattara, who was a deputy managing director at the International Monetary Fund before becoming president, has in some ways vindicated Western nations’ trust in him. He has rebuilt the economy—in 2018, GDP growth stood at 7.4 percent, marking seven consecutive years of growth above 7 percent—and brought much of the country back together after a rending civil war. The north-south divide that characterized the 2002-2011 conflict has been eased. Residents now travel freely around Ivory Coast and face a much lower risk of day-to-day violence.

But the president’s increasing tendency toward policies that contravene human rights, due process, and freedom of speech has gotten far less attention than his country’s growth and progress.

But the president’s increasing tendency toward policies that contravene human rights, due process, and freedom of speech has gotten far less attention than his country’s growth and progress.

Yet these very policies might spark further violence in 2020.

The situation in Ivory Coast is reminiscent of that in Rwanda, where Kagame has presided over strong economic growth rates and impressive development and equality programs. Meanwhile, his restrictions on freedom of speech and brutal attacks on outspoken critics of the regime have been virtually ignored by the international community.

The message to leaders around the world seems increasingly to be that if countries can ensure development, the protection of human rights and freedom of speech are inconsequential. How far Western leaders are willing to go with such an approach will be made apparent in the coming months as Ouattara makes his final decision on his candidacy. If the Ivoirian president, who has brought about his country’s economic rebirth, does choose to stand for a third term, it will be up to the West to respond. Unlike in Rwanda, there is likely to be significant unrest and opposition to such a move, making it harder for Western leaders to turn a blind eye.


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