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:

  1. The country’s wealth and diverse natural resources: Côte d’Ivoire is a major coffee and cocoa producer and remains West Africa’s economic and financial driving force, a role carved out for it under French colonization and preserved by Boigny, who was France’s top man in Africa and leader among African heads of State, known for his wisdom and foresight.
  2. Attraction of private Western capital and of labor from across Africa: The country proved such a magnet for African labor that in the 1980s, as Abidjan was becoming the economic capital not only of Côte d’Ivoire but of the whole of West Africa, a quarter of the population were citizens of neighboring African countries.

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:

  1. Alassane Ouattara (78 years old): The current President, he fixed the country’s economy and achieved a full decade of political stability. Although he had said on several occasions that he might have to run if the front-runners were from his generation (mainly referring to Bedie), he seemed to have decided to nominate Prime Minister Coulibaly, who came from the Muslim north of the country and enjoyed broad popularity in political and financial circles. However, several statements made in recent weeks have hinted that Coulibaly’s death may indeed force him to run, and in fact, many within his umbrella party, Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace, have started calling for him to contend in the presidential race.
  2. Henri Konan Bedie (86 years old): The candidate for the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire is a former president and had supported Ouattara during his two previous terms before breaking ties with him. Bedie has strong support from his fellow Baoule and in the south and east of the country, and could also benefit from former president Gbagbo’s support base, if he is not nominated.
  3. Laurent Gbagbo (75 years old): The Ivorian Popular Front leader hopes to return to his country and run in the upcoming presidential elections. He is working hard – at home and abroad – to normalize his political position and enter the electoral race, although it is highly unlikely that he will compete.
  4. Guillaume Soro (48 years old): The leader of the student and the military rebel movements, ex-Prime Minister, and former National Assembly President, he has announced his decision to run in the presidential elections and return to Côte d’Ivoire after years of self-imposed exile. However, the Ivorian authorities have issued an international arrest warrant against him, and have sentenced him to 20 years in prison on security- and finance-related charges. He remains in exile but has stressed that he still intends to run and is determined to return home. Soro has close ties in Côte d’Ivoire and abroad and a strong connection with the former President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore.

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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