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November 6, 2020

Africa

COTE D’IVOIRE: Violent escalation averted, problems remain

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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While the post-election stand-off between the opposition and the government continues, the risk of a violent escalation appears to have largely subsided for now. Neither the ongoing house arrest of key opposition leaders, nor an open appeal by the exiled ex-militia leader Guillaume Soro to members of the armed forces to mutiny have triggered a tangible reaction. While President Alassane Ouattara looks set to officially commence his next term on 14 December, he will have to make important trade-offs in the weeks to come. Most notably, this concerns reconciliatory measures such as the return of former president Laurent Gbagbo and potential electoral reforms ahead of the upcoming parliamentary polls. While a major security crisis in the aftermath of the 31 October vote may have been averted, the risks to political stability created through Ouattara’s third term could haunt the country for years to come.

While the government has so far refrained from imprisoning key opposition leaders Henri Konan Bedie and Pascal Affi N’Guessan (who has apparently managed to go into hiding), the de-facto house arrest of Bedie has failed to trigger major protests in Abidjan or elsewhere. Meanwhile, Soro’s 4 November social media appeal to the armed forces to support the opposition’s ‘National Transition Council’ has remained unanswered. It should be noted, however, that over the past week, the convoys of three ministers have been subjected to armed assaults, which the government ascribes to Soro. If true, this would indicate that Soro retains a certain capacity to cause havoc.

Overall, this week’s events suggest that the opposition’s escalation strategy discussed earlier has largely failed. The latter has also failed to earn the opposition any goodwill among important international stakeholders such as France, the US, the EU and others. However, diplomats are not enthused by Ouattara’s maneuvering either. Accordingly, international pressure on Ouattara to take reconciliatory measures is likely to grow.

While a rapprochement between Ouattara and Bedie remains improbable, the discussion will likely center on Gbagbo’s potential return, as well as electoral reforms and the timing of the upcoming parliamentary elections. By calling Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko and offering to act as a broker for peace and reconciliation, Gbagbo, who also distanced himself from Bedie’s counter-government, has further increased his chances of returning to the country. Indeed, enabling Gbagbo’s return would generate goodwill for Ouattara both domestically and abroad, and would also likely allow him to marginalize Bedie (and N’Guessan) until they fall into oblivion. On the other hand, Gbagbo would be unlikely to retire upon his return and could resuscitate his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). In fact, he would likely be much more effective in mobilizing the opposition than Bedie ever was.

The timing of and conditions attached to Gbagbo’s likely return will therefore be crucial, not least in light of the upcoming parliamentary election, the exact date of which has yet to be determined. Emboldened by recent events, Ouattara could deepen divisions by holding them as soon as possible and bank on a continuation of the opposition’s boycott. However, depending largely on the extent of international pressure, he may offer superficial reforms of electoral institutions and defer them to a later date. In any event, as discussed on previous occasions, the repercussions of Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term will pose a latent risk to political stability way beyond election day.

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