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Situation Update - Ivory Coast

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IVORY COAST’S PRE-ELECTORAL PERIOD BESET BY POLITICAL AND CIVIL TURMOIL
  • President Alassane Ouattara’s move to run for a third term on 31 October has prompted political and civil turmoil, with opposition leaders decrying the move as illegal whilst the Constitutional Council has ratified his candidacy.

  • The council also ruled that only four of the 44 leaders who applied to appear on the ballot are permitted to run in the election, with those excluded including a former president and a former prime minister.

  • Opposition leaders have called for the Ivorian electorate to boycott the election and have advocated for “civil disobedience”, with intermittent civil unrest and bloodshed defining the lead up to the vote.

  • The primary risks to foreigners moving within the Ivory Coast are journey disruption in addition to being implicated or injured in events as a bystander to unrest.

  • Commercial efforts are currently under considerable political risk whereby economic uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 has been compounded by anxieties associated with notions of a cascade into conflict.

  • Though the results of the election are sure to be contentiously received by the losing side, a fragmented opposition lacking military capacity makes fully fledged conventional conflict unlikely

Situation

Pre-electoral political and civil turmoil has beset the Ivory Coast ahead of the country’s presidential vote, whereby incumbent President Alassane Ouattara of the Rally of Republicans (RDR) party is controversially running for a third term. The primary round of voting is slated for 31 October, with Ivorian electoral law stipulating that provisional results must be announced by the electoral commission within 5 days of the vote. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority, voting rules specify that a run-off between the two candidates who garnered the most ballots must take place within 15 days of the results being declared.

In accordance with provisions in the Ivorian constitution stipulating a two-term presidential limit, in March, Ouattara declared that he would not feature as a candidate in the upcoming election, though the untimely death of his preferred successor Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly in July prompted reconsideration. RDR officials have since taken up the stance that Ouattara’s first two mandates do not preclude him from candidacy as per the Ivory Coast adopting a new constitution in 2016, thereby resetting his ability to lawfully stand for office for an additional term. This interpretation of the constitution was ratified on 14 September when Ivory Coast’s Constitutional Council ruled in favour of Ouattara’s eligibility to be listed as a contender on the 31 October vote. However, opposition leaders and supporters have decried Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term as illegal and have urged that the move undermines the Ivory Coast’s democratic legitimacy.

A further point of contention involves the narrow pool of candidates authorised to participate in the election, whereby the Constitutional Council ruled that only four out of 44 leaders who applied for candidacy will appear on the ballot. In addition to Ouattara, the other contestants with approval to participate are ex-Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), ex-President Henri Konan Bédié of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast – African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA) and the lesser known former member of parliament Kouadio Konan Bertin running as an independent. The bids of prominent leaders such as ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and ex-Prime Minister Guillaume Soro were rejected, whereby both live in exile and have been handed prison sentences in absentia by the Ivorian judicial system. N’Guessan and Bédié have since called on the electorate to boycott the election and have encouraged acts of “civil disobedience” ahead of the vote, citing what they perceive as the election’s unconstitutional character.

In accordance with calls for discord by opposition leaders, the present Ivorian political crisis has been accompanied by intermittent civil unrest and bloodshed, with around 15 people killed in August and September after Ouattara announced his intention to run for a third term. A notable instance of protest took place on 10 October, when 20,000 demonstrators rallied in the economic capital of Abidjan holding placards and chanting “the people say no to an illegal third term”. Recent inter-ethnic violence transpired on 17 October, when clashes broke out in the south-eastern town of Bongouanou between the local pro-N’Guessan Agni ethnic group versus the Dioula people who back Ouattara. Mass looting and vandalism was accompanied by two deaths, in addition to N’Guessan stating that his home was burned down. Recent inter-communal violence has also taken place in the south-eastern port-town of Dabou, whereby on 22 October Mayor Jean-Claude Niangne reported that at least six were killed over the previous week amidst clashes between Ouattara’s supporters and opponents.

Implications

At present, the primary risks to individuals travelling within the Ivory Coast are journey disruption in addition to being injured or implicated in events as a bystander to unrest. Especially relevant to overland travel is how roadblocks have been routinely utilised by Ivorian demonstrators to raise the profile of their grievance and have proven to materialise rapidly, despite government security forces previously vowing to prevent protesters from blocking traffic. Heightened security measures are likely to accompany any further instances of civil unrest as the government attempts to assuage the potential for violence whilst also attempting to enforce a ban on public gatherings, ostensibly in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, a heavy policing presence is unlikely to deter protesters from public assembly owing to high levels of conviction amongst both the pro-regime and pro-opposition camps, with protesters recurrently flaunting government directives in favour of expressing support for their political cause of choice.

Commercial efforts in the Ivory Coast are currently under considerable political risk due to the political upheaval. Access to credit has become highly constrained, with the present political crisis compounding the economic fallout associated with COVID-19 which has driven down global demand for the Ivory Coast’s agricultural products. This adverse combination of circumstances has induced an environment where banks, insurers and investors are risk averse, with concerns centred on the notion that Ivory Coast could cascade into a deeper crisis as occurred in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election, whereby the post-election context deteriorated into the Second Ivorian Civil War. Such anxieties have arisen as Ivorian farmers are currently amidst the harvesting period for cocoa’s main annual crop that typically runs between October and March, with the Ivory Coast being the world’s largest cocoa exporter. Cocoa shipments were severely disrupted in the power struggle that ensued following the 2010 election, whereby then-opposition leader Ouattara imposed a suspension on exports to inflict financial pressure on then-President Laurent Gbagbo. Heightened commercial uncertainty has been reflected in the price of London cocoa futures, which climbed to a six-month high following Ouattara’s announcement that he will seek a third term.

The results of the election carry significant security implications, with the varying outcomes corresponding to diverging risk landscapes. In the probable event of an Ouattara victory, widespread rioting is likely the upper bound for the manifestation of risk in the post-electoral period due to the opposition lacking the capabilities to oppose an unfavourable status quo through conventional conflict. Key structural aspects differentiate the current opposition from that which partook in the 2010 vote, whereby the post-2010 electoral environment was defined by two camps on greater parity with each other in terms of military strength. This gave the opposition the requisite ability to coercively challenge the Gbagbo administration’s rejection of Ouattara’s victory in the polls. Current circumstances feature a markedly weaker opposition limited by its fragmented character, with many of its key leaders in exile and lacking any rebel military wing that could serve as a mechanism for a robust mobilisation against the government.

A different possibility that carries starkly different implications is the event of an opposition victory. There is a remote possibility that any of the opposition candidates could procure an absolute majority in the first round, though anti-Ouattara voters banding together for the same opposition candidate in a potential runoff poses a real electoral challenge to incumbent regime. In the eventuality of an opposition victory, Ouattara’s government could potentially unilaterally oppose the result and refuse to vacate office. Such a development could be followed by intervention from an external actor that would bestow the Ivorian opposition with the necessary resources to graduate into a coherent rebel faction, thereby reconfiguring the risk landscape by extending the upper bound for risk manifestation to include conventional war.