Situation overview

Less than a day before the next presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire, tensions are rising in a country that still lives in the shadow of political division and conflict. An initial wave of tensions began in September, when President Alassane Ouattara, who had already served the constitutional maximum of two terms, announced that he would be seeking reelection. This represented a shift in Ouattara’s position, who had previously announced he would step aside and allow a new generation of leaders to emerge. On September 14, the President of the Constitutional Council officially confirmed that Ouattara would run again, in contrast to his position in March.

There are also concerns surrounding the Independent Electoral Commission’s (CEI) monitoring of the upcoming elections. The CEI is widely perceived to be biased in favor of the incumbent president, which has citizens questioning the future validity of the elections. While the independent body is considered to have the technical capacity to monitor the elections, many citizens are wondering whether the elections will take place at all on the scheduled date of October 31. 

Ouattara’s main challenger is Henry Konan Bédié, who served as president of the Côte d’Ivoire between 1993 and 1999. In 1999, he was ousted by a military coup on the grounds of his xenophobic ideology, based on racial discrimination of Malian and Burkinabé groups. Despite having supported Ouatarra in 2015, he now runs as candidate for the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI). Bédié and another presidential candidate, former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), have called for boycotts of the election and fired up conflict by calling on regional and social identity cleavages. 

What we’re seeing in the streets of Côte d’Ivoire now is the picking up of arms and the resurgence of ethnic violence. More than 50 individuals were arrested for illegal possession of weapons. A curfew has been installed between 7pm and 6am as an attempt to prevent violence from breaking through. Still, over 30 deaths have been reported to be linked to election violence since August. While the boycotting parties see their rhetoric of civil disobedience as just in-fighting against the unconstitutional candidacy, President Ouatarra’s camp also claims to be fighting for the wellbeing of the country.

Ethnic violence, again

The current violence is reminiscent of 2010, when over 2000 killings were recorded during the political strife between presidential candidates Laurent Gbago and Ouattara. Then, inciting violence functioned as a type of political brinkmanship, meant to showcase the power of the party. Today, violence appears to have become entrenched in many communities, raising the question how far political manipulations sold as ingrained cultural hatred have gone. 

Dioulas, groups of Northern Muslims who support President Ouattara, sent violent warning signs like car burnings and plunderings to groups opposing a third term. Other ethnic groups supportive of the opposition, such as the Agnis, have also begun to engage in similar acts in support of candidates Affi N’Guessan and Laurent Gbagbo. Once again, elite conflict over gains in office leads to violence around constructed identities. 

The current events hold the power to sway the country down significantly different avenues. Properly timed and appropriate reactions by the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of the West African State (ECOWAS), the UN, and local independent monitoring organizations could become critical. 

Where does the AU stand? 

The violent modus operandi of military coups makes them subject to greater scrutiny than illegal constitutional amendments. But to what extent is election manipulation any different from a coup-style takeover? The unconstitutional seizure of power by elites is one of the main sources of instability, insecurity, and violent conflict in Africa. 

Since its foundation in 2002, the AU has condemned constitutional modifications that extend term limits. As defined by the Lomé Declaration and formalised in the Addis Charter, in Article 23(5),

“…any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.”

But with more than nine instances of successful military coups or unconstitutional changes in government since 2000, the current AU reaction stands to be improved. This is further elaborated in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which delegates direct responsibility to the AU in countering such illegitimate change.  The AU’s often rampant silence on such issues remains the norm. Despite the existence of a collective body of treaties and works, it cannot not impose democracy on its constituents. 

What can be the approach moving forward?

Without downplaying the shock the Ivorian crisis has caused to local communities, we also need to look at its international effect beyond Côte d’Ivoire itself. Until the end of 2020, 17 countries across Africa are set to hold elections (either presidential, primary or parliamentary). 15 have already been moved from the originally scheduled date due to the current pandemic. Such grounds for loopholes in an already challenging democratic transition bring potential for more unrest. 

The upcoming electoral processes contain opportunities, but also threats. The AU needs to maintain its power stance via a mediator role. It needs to send electoral monitoring agencies to all regions in question. This is especially important now that the pandemic has frozen the involvement of the EU, which previously held the role of supporting transparent elections and rapidly putting out potential unrest. 

In which groups’ hands does a working resolution to unstable elections lie, and does the political makeup of these bodies enable them to act effectively? Can ethnic tensions be calmed before their shadows generate greater unrest? With only a few days left until the presidential elections, the fabrics of Côte d’Ivoire’s future political dynamic have been long in the making.