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Is Côte d’Ivoire Sliding into Terminal Unrest?

Côte d'Ivoire's recent election was meant to break the country's decades-long cycle of violence, but resulted in widespread unrest and tensions between opposing factions. Tapis consulted our Côte d’Ivoire expert, “Jean”, about the sociopolitical consequences of the election and the operational implications for businesses.

Côte d’Ivoire held their most recent presidential election on October 31st. It took place in the midst of civil unrest and boycotting, widespread allegations of lack of transparency in the electoral process and a global pandemic.

What was initially meant to be a historic election for the West African country has now become a source of fear, discontent and frustration with the government. After the election, clashes between the president’s supporters and the opposition have intensified.

Tapis consulted our Côte d’Ivoire expert, “Jean”, about the impact of the election on the sociopolitical environment in the country, and its operational implications for businesses.

The stakes

When Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara claimed that he would not run for re-election last March, it seemed like an opportunity to hand over political power to a new generation. As “Jean” put it, “the election was an opportunity to bring peace and break the country’s cycle of violence”.

In Côte d’Ivoire, no presidential election since 1995 has resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. After the 2010 contested election, a civil war broke out, causing over 3,000 deaths and displacing almost 1 million people as rival factions clashed. Côte d’Ivoire had experienced a previous civil war between 2002 and 2007. This year’s election was expected to be the biggest challenge to political stability in the country in the last decade. According to “Jean”, the instability that has followed the election has made civil war “definitely a possibility”.

President Ouattara announced his new candidacy for a third term on August 6th after the death of his designated successor. A general sentiment of what “Jean” described as “mistrust and confrontation” arose, with violence breaking out in several regions in the country.

Ouattara’s opposition sees his decision to run for a third term as a further blow to democracy in West Africa. This comes less than three months after a military coup in neighbouring Mali and a successful third term bid by Guinea’s President Alpha Conde. West Africa is also still struggling to recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the rising numbers in infections.

The Root of the Problem: A Controversial Third Term Run

“President Alassane Ouattara’s third term run was very controversial”, according to “Jean”. Article 55 of the Ivorian constitution stipulates that the president can only be re-elected once. However, a new Fundamental Law adopted by the Constitutional Council in 2016 has been used by President Ouattara to run for a third time.

“Jean” explained that “Ouattara’s disregard of the constitution is the main root of the violence in the country”. He also points to the exclusion of 40 out of the 44 initial presidential hopefuls by the Independent Electoral Commission as part of Ouattara’s strategy to limit the number of opponents.

Quite notably, amongst those banned from running are ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro. This exclusion has raised concerns over the independence and legitimacy over the Independent Electoral Commission.

On 20th October, the opposition led by ex-president Bédié and a majority of the opposition parties called for “civil disobedience”. Clashes broke out in various parts of the country as a result, leading to a very tense social environment and a general sentiment of concern. At least 85 people have been killed and over 480 others injured in pre- and post-election violence in the Ivory Coast.

Ahead of the election, outside actors called for the delay of the elections to minimise violence and encourage dialogue with the opposition. This included French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as International Crisis Group and the Ivorian Observatory for Human Rights. This was refused by President Ouattara.

The disrespect for the constitution and the abuse of executive power to ban presidential candidates has led to a general crisis of legitimacy, affecting both the results of the election and the new government itself.

Election Day in Côte d’Ivoire

President Alassane Ouattara won a third term with 94.27 of the vote in a heavily boycotted election. According to “Jean”, “many in Côte d’Ivoire do not recognize this win and criticise the election for its lack of transparency and inclusivity”.

The main opposition candidates, Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Henri Konan Bédié encouraged their supporters to boycott the vote. They each received 1 and 2 per cent respectively. The fourth candidate, Kouadio Konan Bertin, running as an independent, also received 2 per cent of the vote.

The head of the Electoral Commission announced the results on November 3rd and estimated the final turnout for 31 October’s election was at 53.90 per cent. However, the opposition has put forward alternative figures and estimates the rate of participation at less than 10%.

“Jean” corroborated that there was in fact a “very poor rate of participation”. “The highest participation rate was around 20-25 per cent, mainly in the north of the country”, where most of the president’s supporters are. “Most of the opposition stayed at home as part of the boycott. Many Ivorians who wanted to vote were also deterred from casting their ballots by fear of the volatile security situation”.

The opposition destroyed voting materials and prevented polling stations from opening. Jean pointed out that “roadblocks hampered voting in many places”. The civil society organization Indigo had a thousand observers on the ground and indicated that 23% of the polling stations remained closed all day.

A destabilising election

The election sparked deadly violence around the country. “Jean” told Tapis that “deaths continued happening well after the election. Weapons such as guns and knives are being used in violence between civilians, heightening people’s fears”. There are reports that at least 9 people were killed on election day. The opposition reported 30 victims on that single day, while the government has not provided any official figures.

Several independent reports, including one by Amnesty International, warned about the use of auxiliary troops by certain segments of the security apparatus, such as police officers in Abidjan. Young men were reported to be assaulting, threatening and intimidating opposition demonstrators with knowledge of state authorities.

On November 1st, the opposition announced they were working on creating a transitional government to organise a new “credible and transparent” election. Guillaume Soro called on the army to join the national transitional council against the “dictatorship in Ivory Coast by Alassane Ouattara”. In turn, authorities have accused the opposition of plotting against the government.

“Opposition leaders have been placed on house arrest, and others are currently being tracked for the same purpose”, according to “Jean”. Several of them were even charged with terrorism after trying to form a national transitional council in opposition to Ouattara, which authorities have said constitutes a “crime against the state”.

The UN Refugee Agency is concerned about the thousands of refugees that have fled to neighbouring countries due to electoral tension and unrest in the last few weeks. By mid-November, over 10,000 people had fled Côte d’Ivoire and arrived in Liberia, Ghana and Togo. Many report fears of the escalating violence in Côte d’Ivoire.

“Jean” emphasised that “the only way to resolve violence is to organise a credible, fair and inclusive election”.

What does the operational environment in Côte d’Ivoire look like?

The current economic and sociopolitical developments in Côte d'Ivoire will have a considerable impact on businesses operating in the country. “Jean” argued that “the main issue in the country is the uncertainty”. He explained that there is currently no certainty about what the political, economic and social environment would look like in the country in the coming months. These are some of the most crucial issues that businesses operating or looking to operate in Côte d’Ivoire will have to consider.

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s biggest cocoa exporter. However, after the election on the impact of the electoral crisis and the violence that followed have negatively impacted cocoa supply chains for exporters. It has slowed, and farmers seem reluctant to continue their work in such a volatile climate.

“Jean” made the point that “in the south of the country, where most of the opposition and the cocoa and coffee villages are located, there is restricted access due to violence and roadblocks”. This is severely impacting supply chains and “could eventually lead to a cocoa shortage in the global cocoa market”. This slowing down of supply chain operations is likely to affect other businesses, as roadblocks and violence hamper operations.

The current volatile security environment in the country is also a concern for businesses. Analysts and investors are not expecting the vote to lead to an all-out conflict. However, disputes about the election’s legitimacy and the opposition’s encouragement of civil disobedience could lead to a long period of uncertainty. This will likely have a negative effect on the economy, and at worst spiral into more serious violence. “Jean” reported that “many are fearing unilateral action from the military” and that a civil war similar to the post-2010- election conflict “is definitely a possibility”.

“Jean” also told Tapis that the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in the county is also likely to worsen. “Currently, the Ouattara government is dismissing the severity of the virus and its impact on the country. At a local level, Ivorians are not following the few restrictions put in place against the spread of the pandemic”.

“Jean” has contacts in local hospitals, and he assured that “the statistics and figures put out by the government in terms of infection and death rates are not in line with reality” and “are actually much higher”. He argues that higher rates of cases are to be expected, especially after “thousands gathered without masks for campaign events and meetings and violence between factions broke out”.

What next for Cote d’Ivoire?

While many were hoping Côte d’Ivoire’s 2020 presidential election would help bring long-term peace to the country, it seems like the cycle of violence has yet to be broken. The crisis of legitimacy brought by the disrespect for the constitution and other questionable political moves on the part of the Ouattara government has led to widespread violence in the country.

There is no certainty regarding when civil unrest will end. Our local expert in the country argued that this violence could even escalate to the point of a civil war outbreak, similar to the one the country experienced a decade ago.

These political developments and their socioeconomic ramifications, as well as the health implications of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, will have a considerable impact on businesses operating in Ivory Coast. The rapidly changing situation on the ground highlights the importance of local intelligence for effective decision making.


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