Côte d’Ivoire has experienced three periods of civil conflict in the last 20 years, all the result of disputed elections between characters still involved in Ivorian politics. President Alassane Ouattara, prime minister in the early 1990s, and president since 2010, is campaigning for a third term in office in the lead-up to the presidential election on 31 October 2020. Guillaume Soro, Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo, all former leaders, are also seeking power. Given the characters involved, and the historical tensions, the election will be extremely divisive, and is likely to result in violent civil unrest, possibly even a more widespread civil conflict.
President Ouattara’s Attempts to Retain Power
In a shameless attempt to extend his rule beyond the maximum two terms, Ouattara has been busy playing politics. All these developments have led to civil unrest in Abidjan and other urban centres, much of which has been managed violently by public order security forces.
Ouattara delayed the decision about whether or not to run for a third term until as late as possible, and the debate over term limits has ratcheted up the political tension. Since an amendment to the constitution in 2016, he has insisted that he has the right to run for a third term in office, claiming that his first two terms as president did not count towards this two-term limit, as they predated the 2016 constitution. Then, in March 2020, he announced that he did not intend to run for a third term. In July, after the surprise death of his party’s candidate, he allowed speculation over his intentions to run for several weeks, before declaring in August that he will run after all. The political opposition still denies that he has the right to stand for a third term.
By either permitting or directing targeted attacks against his rival presidential candidates or rival political parties, President Ouattara has increased political tensions. In December 2019, an arrest warrant was issued for presidential candidate Guillaume Soro over allegations that he was plotting a coup; state security raided three of Soro’s residences, Soro’s brother was arrested and jailed, and in late February ten of Soro’s supporters were charged over involvement in the suspected coup at the high court. In April, Soro himself was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison, causing him to remain in Europe and abandon (for now) his presidential campaign.
In August, Ouattara’s government removed his main rival for the presidency, former president Laurent Gbagbo, from the voter rolls, stating that he was ineligible due to criminal convictions (despite his acquittal by the ICC in January 2019). This week, both Gbagbo and Soro had their candidacies rejected by the Constitutional Court, leaving Ouattara with just former president Henri Konan Bédié, himself a divisive candidate at best.
This week, the leader of the opposition Coalition for Change (CNC), Samba David, was attacked by unidentified men, and is now in a critical condition in hospital, with stab wounds. The CNC has recently called for demonstrations against President Ouattara’s running for a third term.
Other Causes for Concern
The increasingly autocratic behaviour demonstrated by President Ouattara has been visible in other ways, all of which have contributed to the tense environment.
The president has actively sought to reduce the political debate and suppress freedom of speech. On 01 February, a media team reporting for a national TV channel was violently expelled from a political meeting of the EDS movement (the opposition coalition to which Laurent Gbagbo is allied). In mid-August, the government banned all political demonstrations for four weeks outright, citing ongoing political unrest as the cause.
At the same time, routine issues of government are being neglected. In early 2020, the poor quality of drinking water and sanitation infrastructure led to demonstrations in small towns and suburbs. Tax rises caused strikes at Mankono market; and students and teachers have held strikes over a range of issues. At least three people were killed and several houses destroyed during flash floods in Abidjan in June (an annual environmental risk that has received little acknowledgement from the government this year). Miscommunication over COVID-19 led to some pandemic-related civil unrest earlier this year.
Internal conflict. There is no doubt that conflict is possible between rival political factions in the wake of the election. In 2010 there was a brief conflict when Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after losing a presidential election. Despite his removal from the electoral roll, his presence on the fringes of this election suggests that any of the protagonists might be prepared to increase the stakes in the event of an unfavourable result. The military is not adequately disciplined or united to be able to suppress any major violence between political militias, and already contains large numbers of former rebels and militants who could possibly resort to infighting over their political interests rather than following orders. Recent years of violence have led to the nationwide availability of weapons, so it may not take much to result for unrest to break out into outright war.
Ethnic violence. Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), promotes ethnic divisions in the country by using nationalistic rhetoric to rally support from the Bete community (in the more prosperous south and west of the country) against the RDR from the poorer, Muslim-majority north. Although lower than it used to be, the risk of violence inspired by ethnic divisions will endure as long as political parties seek divisions along these lines. Ethnic tensions still persist in the wake of the 2010 civil war, since when there has been little accountability for 3,000 deaths and more than 500,000 displacements. Just a few weeks ago, ethnic violence broke out in Divo between communities armed with machetes and clubs, who were reportedly inspired by the ongoing controversy over Ouattara’s campaign.
Terrorist attacks. The risk of terrorism has been increasing in Côte d’Ivoire over the last five years, since Islamist militants from Mali penetrated into Burkina Faso. The northern Ivorian border is not secure, and remains exposed to militants seeking to expand south. In June, the largest terrorist attack in five years was conducted in Kafolo by JNIM Islamist militants, leading to the deaths of 14 soldiers, and led to the government launching major operations in the Burkinabe border area. Islamists conducting strategic planning will be very aware of the increased vulnerability of the Ivorian state over the election period, and may see it as a good opportunity to attack institutional targets and widen their influence into West Africa.
Violent civil unrest. Widespread protests and violent demonstrations are a very likely outcome of the tensions that are ongoing in Ivorian politics, and there is a high risk that they will be experienced in the wake of the election, given how divisive the political situation is. Such unrest is not only a reaction to increased authoritarianism by Ouattara – it will also be caused by ethnic and political objections to key figures such as Bédié and Gbagbo. It will be the natural result of a failure by the political elite to manage day-to-day social and infrastructure problems within Ivorian communities. It may even be sparked by widespread fears over the COVID-19 pandemic in Côte d’Ivoire where, despite low case numbers (approximately 19k), the total test numbers are extremely low (142k), suggesting that the outbreak is probably more widespread than officially reported. Security forces are likely to manage any public order situation with violence (as has been the case so far this year), and unrest might endure for months.
Travellers should reconsider travel to Côte d’Ivoire until the stability of the country can be determined. Those on essential journeys should not travel without detailed route, security and evacuation planning, or without appropriate security protection and tracking. They should consider informing appropriate embassies of their planned journeys, should monitor local media and must be prepared to take professional advice on any short-term changes.
Northcott Global Solutions can provide risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation. NGS is already engaged with service providers and organisations on the ground, advising on local medical capacity for COVID-19 testing, emergency medical planning and international evacuation protocols.
Author: Jamie Thomson, Senior Risk Analyst
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