On July 8, 2020, the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire (also known as the Ivory Coast) announced the death of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, who was the favorite to succeed President Alassane Ouattara in the elections scheduled for October 2020. Coulibaly’s sudden death marks a major turning point in the political landscape of West Africa’s economic and strategic hub, and calls for an assessment of the political horizon in Côte d’Ivoire in the run-up to the presidential elections.
The political process in Côte d’Ivoire
Côte d’Ivoire enjoyed a long period of political stability and economic prosperity under its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who led the country from independence in 1960 until his death at the end of 1991. The distinctiveness of the Ivorian model lies in two main factors:
Boigny prepared to two of his most prominent supporters, Henri Konan Bedie and Alassane Ouattara, to succeed him. Bedie is a former Minister of Finance and ex‑President of the National Assembly, and is from the same ethnic group as Boigny (the Baoule, who make up a quarter of the country’s population), and Alassane Ouattara is a leading economist who worked as Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund before becoming Prime Minister.
Although interpretations of the Constitution differed, National Assembly leader Bedie managed to impose himself as Boigny’s successor, despite Ouattara’s objections. He went on to win the 1995 elections, from which he barred both Ouattara – on the pretext that he was not of Ivorian origin – and his left-wing opponent Laurent Gbagbo, who had run against the late President Boigny in 1990 in the country’s first ever multi-party elections. Bedie’s success, however, created an acute political crisis that culminated in a military coup led by General Robert Guei on December 24, 1999.
General Guei and Gbagbo took part in the October 2000 presidential elections, from which Bedie and Ouattara were excluded, and after a bloody revolt, Gbagbo was declared the winner. In 2002, civil war broke out when a military rebel movement in north and central Côte d’Ivoire, led by student union leader Guillaume Soro with support from neighboring Burkina Faso, seized control of 60% of the country. After French military intervention and successive attempts at a peaceful settlement, the warring parties signed a peace agreement in 2007 in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, which saw rebel leader Soro appointed as Prime Minister until inclusive presidential elections were held.
Bedie, Gbagbo, and Ouattara competed for the presidency in the first round of elections on October 31, 2010. Failing at the first hurdle, Bedie, along with Soro, threw his support behind Ouattara, who made it through to the second round with Gbagbo. On December 2, the Ivorian Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner, but the Constitutional Council overturned the result the next day in favor of Gbagbo, triggering a serious political and constitutional crisis. Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, 2011 and was handed over to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity once Ouattara had been inaugurated as President. Ouattara won a landslide victory in the first round of the 2015 presidential elections, avoiding a run-off; however, his alliance with Bedie and Soro broke down. Côte d'Ivoire issued a 20‑year prison sentence against Gbagbo, who was acquitted by the International Criminal Court in January 2019 and has since been living in Brussels under conditional release.
Political context of the presidential elections
The upcoming presidential elections are being held in a repeat of the original crisis that flared up in 1995 after the death of the founding leader Boigny, and will therefore be fought out by the same faces that have dominated the political scene over the last two decades, namely:
In addition to these four well-known leaders, former Foreign Minister Marcel Amon‑Tanoh, who had hoped that President Ouattara would nominate him as his successor, and current Defense Minister Hamed Bakayoko, who has been acting Prime Minister since Coulibaly’s death, have also thrown their hats into the ring.
Outlook for the upcoming presidential elections
Ouattara is expected to win if he runs in October 2020. However, given the ethno-religious conflict generated by political division, his success will result in a serious political crisis that could create internal unrest and rekindle tensions in Côte d’Ivoire.
While Gbagbo and Soro will probably be barred from the presidential race, there is still hope for Bedie if he can consolidate his alliance with the two exiled leaders. His chances may be boosted in the event of a second round of elections, but a run-off is unlikely, given the absence of other strong candidates.
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