Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme
Earlier this month, Cote d’Ivoire’s opposition parties rejected Youssouf Bakayoko’s re-election as the head of the country’s election commission. Bakayoko, a member of President Alassane Ouattara’s ruling coalition, has served as head of the commission since it was set up in 2010. The rejection was a reminder of both the fractious nature of Ivorian politics and the deep ambivalence within the opposition Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) about reaching agreement with the Ouattara administration.
Alassane Ouattara gestures as he reviews troops on 7 August 2014 during the celebrations marking the 54th anniversary of independence. Photo by Getty Images.Alassane Ouattara gestures as he reviews troops on 7 August 2014 during the celebrations marking the 54th anniversary of independence. Photo by Getty Images.

Reform of the electoral commission, which parliament approved in May, was meant to be a further step in political reconciliation and normalization, but the new makeup provides a majority of seats on the commission for the ruling parties. The dispute over Bakayoko’s re-election also reflects an ongoing power struggle within the FPI between the party’s president, Pascal Affi Nguessan, who favors re-engagement in mainstream Ivoirian politics, and hardline supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo, who still want to boycott the upcoming 2015 elections. The FPI has signaled that it is seeking new concessions from the government. A party congress at the end of the year will need to agree on the FPI’s new leadership and whether it will compete in the 2015 elections. If not resolved, those issues could result in a splitting of the party.

The trouble has been lingering since November 2010 when presidential elections, rather than ending a decade of instability following an insurrection in 2002 that partitioned the country, triggered renewed violence. Gbagbo refused to concede victory to Ouattara, at the time a former prime minister, despite Ouattara winning 54.1 per cent vote to Gbagbo’s 45.9 per cent. That refusal generated a power struggle that over four months deteriorated into a quasi-civil war in the capital, Yamoussoukro, and the west of the country between pro-Gbagbo forces and the rebel Forces Nouvelles (FN). The crisis ended with Gbagbo’s arrest in April 2011, following military intervention by the French and a United Nations force. Ouattara was sworn in as president the next month, for a five-year term.

Many of the divisions that fueled Cote d’Ivoire’s earlier civil war persist. Dialogue between the ruling coalition, known as the RHDP, and the opposition FPI has not significantly progressed, although the release in August 2013 of 14 detained pro-Gbagbo supporters has reduced tensions. An official reconciliation effort through a commission, Verite et Reconciliation (Truth and Reconciliation), completed its mandate in September 2013. It was, however, a complete failure, in part because, despite Ouattara’s promise to hold his supporters to account for human rights abuses in 2010-11, not one of his supporters was tried.

In this respect, Ouattara has staked out a position that is confusing to many Ivorians. He has refused to transfer Simone Gbagbo, the wife of the former president, to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, saying that the Ivoirian judicial system is competent to judge her. It seems Ouattara fears that by transferring her, he would come under additional pressure to deliver some of his own supporters to the ICC. This would be deeply destabilizing for him and his coalition in the short term, as prominent Ouattara supporters—such as Guillaume Soro, a former prime minister and FN leader now serving as the president of the National Assembly—are known to be of interest to the court. In addition, the Ivorian government has provisionally released dozens of Gbagbo supporters, pending their trials, and unfrozen some of their assets, which has encouraged the return of other Gbagbo loyalists from exile.

Nevertheless, in March 2014, the government allowed Charles Ble Goude, a close ally of Gbagbo, to be transferred to The Hague and tried. Ble Goude was already in Ivoirian custody; handing him over to the ICC was politically timed to warn the opposition FPI of the power of incumbency.

Meanwhile, Cote d’Ivoire has maintained good relations with France under Ouattara. Although the U.N.-sponsored French peacekeeping mission is winding down, the bilaterally agreed French military presence will expand to an 800-soldier unit based in Abidjan. That could become an issue in the 2015 election, as the opposition FPI is ambivalent about deepening ties with France. The force is also a statement of support for Ouattara by France in the event of pre- or post-election violence.

Finally, the FPI’s rejection of the election commission’s makeup is not the only sign that political jockeying for the 2015 election has already begun. Earlier this month, former president Henry Konan Bedie—currently leader of the Parti democratique de la Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI), the second-largest party in the National Assembly and part of the governing coalition—said that he would support Ouattara’s re-election. With PDCI support, Ouattara should easily win, helped by the much-weakened state of the opposition and the growing economy, which has been boosted by new laws approved in August 2013 aimed at granting citizenship to foreign nationals living in Cote d’Ivoire that clarify land ownership regulation.

Yet there is one other serious potential contender to the presidency: Guillaume Soro. As the former head of the rebel FN, he enjoys support in the north. And although Ouattara, as president, is technically also the minister of defense, in reality Soro enjoys the loyalty of the military because so many of the armed forces’ soldiers are former FN rebels. Soro’s support of Ouattara would further guarantee his re-election and might come as part of a deal by which Ouattara would stand aside and back Soro in 2020. The battle for power, therefore, is less over who will win the 2015 election than over who will succeed Ouattara in 2020.

The just-published 2014 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) ranks Cote d’Ivoire at 44 on a scale of 100, with one of the biggest improvements—7.8 points—over the past five years of the 52 countries listed. For these improvements to continue will require further reconciliation and a nonviolent election in 2015, and that will depend on the political strategies that both Ouatarra and the FPI adopt over the next 12 months.

This article was originally published by World Politics Review.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback