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July 9, 2020

COTE D’IVOIRE: Coulibaly’s death changes political calculus ahead of election

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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( 4 mins)
  • On 8 July, President Alassane Ouattara announced the sudden death of his prime minister and anointed successor Amadou Gon Coulibaly.
  • The prime minister’s demise is a severe blow for Ouattara, who – despite Coulibaly’s known health issues – had not planned for this scenario.
  • Since presenting himself for a controversial third term would come with a host of problems, Ouattara seems more likely to grudgingly hand the candidacy to a previously passed-over candidate such as Minister of Defense Ahmed Bakayoko.

Coulibaly, who had undergone heart surgery in 2012, had been flown to Paris in early May, despite the closure of the air borders between the two countries at the time due to Covid-19. The official reason given for the visit was a routine medical check-up; however, it later emerged that Coulibaly had been given a stent, and complications had necessitated follow-up surgery. Having returned to Cote d’Ivoire on 2 July, allegedly in good health, he dropped dead shortly after yesterday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Coulibaly’s dead is a severe blow for Ouattara, who will now have to reconsider his options. Coulibaly, who had been his confidant and closest aide for the past 30 years, had clearly been Ouattara’s preferred choice, to the point that he chose to ignore his prime minister’s frail health. Ouattara is now faced with the choice of either presenting himself, or picking another presidential candidate from the ranks of his ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP). The electoral timetable would still allow to present a new candidate by 31 July without a need to postpone the 31 October election date.

Putting himself forward would come with a host of problems for Ouattara

In March, Ouattara (78) had ruled out this option by announcing to make way for a “young generation”. A U-turn on this promise would offer the opposition a through ball to mobilize against the president and deflect pressure from former president Henri Konan Bedie (86), who is most likely to become the flagbearer of his Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) later this month.

More importantly, running for a third term would be based on rather shaky constitutional grounds. As such, it would meet fierce resistance from the public and could plunge the country into another major political crisis. Ouattara’s third-term ambition, which he had entertained since mid-2018, seems based on the idea that the new constitution, introduced in 2016, would somehow turn back the clock on the two-term limit already enshrined in the previous constitution.

While Ouattara had opted earlier this year for a limited constitutional review, which left respective term limit clauses unchanged, he might contemplate rushing through these changes now, using his super majorities in both chambers of parliament. However, changing electoral laws less than six months prior to an election would violate the respective protocols of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This would most likely result in a legal challenge of the election result and would also cost Ouattara support among key international partners.

Yet postponing the elections to abide by said ECOWAS protocols, potentially under the pretext of rising Covid-19 infections or security issues in the border region to Burkina Faso, would produce additional problems. In fact, there are reasons why the government had so far been eager to stick to the 31 October date, despite the Covid-19 crisis. Pushing back the poll date and, along with it, the registration deadline for presidential candidates, would potentially enable former president Laurent Gbagbo to take part in the action, provided the International Criminal Court (ICC) upholds its January 2019 acquittal in the ongoing appeal procedure. While there would still be obstacles to his return to Cote d’Ivoire, Ouattara would much prefer not having to deal with this issue at all. Besides, any delays would give the opposition additional time to pull its forces together.

Bakayoko to the rescue?

Against this background, Ouattara appears more likely to conclude that the safer option to protect his legacy is to hand the candidacy to another member of his ruling RHDP. In the aftermath of Coulibaly’s investiture, the field of potential successors has considerably narrowed as would-be contenders such as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marcel Amon-Tanoh or the Minister of Higher Education, Albert Toikeusse Mabri, had been dismissed.

This propels Bakayoko to the front runner spot, even though the current defense minister had previously been considered an outsider with rather weak networks within the ruling party. Yet Bakayoko’s loyalty could now be rewarded, and the fact that he served as acting prime minister while Coulibaly stayed in Paris could be a pointer.

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