Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko’s death from cancer last week leaves his successor Patrick Achi in pole position to take up the reins from President Alassane Ouattara by 2025. However, the succession debate has only just begun and leaves enough time for other would-be candidates, including Ouattara’s younger brother and the ruling party’s secretary-general Adama Bictogo, to raise their profile. A likely cabinet reshuffle following Bakayoko’s funeral may provide first pointers as to whether Bictogo may harbor any ambitions. In the short-term, Bakayoko’s qualities as a mediator will be missed as the likely return of former president Laurent Gbagbo looms on the horizon.
Recall that Ouattara had appointed Achi, his former chief of staff, as prime minister ad interim on 8 March. The president’s younger brother Tene Ouattara – who had previously served as minister of presidential affairs – took over as minister of defense, a cabinet post previously also held by Bakayoko. Following Bakayoko’s death on 10 March, this arrangement will likely become permanent. While the prime minister position is widely regarded as the staging post to the presidency, Tene’s promotion to minister of defense puts the president’s brother, who had hitherto maintained a low profile, into the limelight. As Ouattara would certainly want to avoid the problem that characterized his previous term, namely his authority being questioned by announcing his intention to retire too early. Maintaining uncertainty regarding his preferred succession will thus remain Ouattara’s first order of business.
Such uncertainty may be fueled further should Bictogo enter the cabinet as part of a pending cabinet reshuffle which was expected in the wake of the 6 March legislative elections and is now likely to take place following Bakayoko’s funeral. While the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) retained its majority in the 254-member National Assembly, it lost 30 seats compared to 2016, including eight ministers (though no heavyweights). That all major opposition parties participated in the poll, despite the absence of any meaningful reform to electoral laws or bodies, was not least credited to Bakayoko’s behind-the-scenes efforts as a mediator. Whether Achi disposes of a similar skill set will likely be put to a first test soon: on 31 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will rule whether its January 2019 acquittal of Gbagbo and his co-defendant Charles Ble Goude will be upheld. Should the ICC stand by its earlier decision, Achi would likely face the delicate task of negotiating Gbagbo’s return to Cote d’Ivoire.