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Ouattara’s third-term bid raises old fears: Risk of violence in Côte d’Ivoire’s upcoming presidential elections

Protesting woman with a face cover mask sitting in the middle of a road with people walking behind her.

Bonoua, Côte d'Ivoire, 21 August 2020. A protest march against President Ouattara running for a third term in the next presidential elections. Photo: EPA/Legnan Koula.

Date • 13 Oct 2020

The unexpected death this summer of the front-runner in the upcoming elections and incumbent President Ouattara’s contested move to run for a third term in office have increased the risk of electoral violence in the ethnically divided Côte d’Ivoire. The threat of a return to armed conflict, as we saw after the 2010 elections, should not be excluded.

Jesper and Sebastian. Photo.

Policy note by Jesper Bjarnesen, senior researcher at NAI and Sebastian van Baalenexternal link, opens in new window, PhD Candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.

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What’s new?

Following the unexpected death this summer of the ruling party’s presidential candidate Coulibaly, incumbent President Ouattara has argued that under such extraordinary circumstances he has no choice but to run for a controversial third term in office. His candidacy has caused heated debate and serious concern about violence and fraud in the upcoming elections on 31 October.

Why is it important?

Côte d’Ivoire is an ethnically divided country that has experienced several military uprisings and armed conflicts over the past two decades. The 2010 elections resulted in a civil war that claimed at least 3,000 lives. The unstable peace that has prevailed since 2011 should not be taken for granted. Lurking below the surface are unresolved land grievances and (real or perceived) regional injustices. A hotly contested presidential election, in combination with increasingly ethnicised rhetoric, may well prove to be the “straw that breaks the elephant’s back”.

What should be done and by whom?

Election observers, human rights watchers, diplomats and development strategists should acquire research-based knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the main political players and their alliances, and prepare to take steps in the event of post-electoral violence. External actors, most notably Ecowas, the AU, the UN and the EU, should closely monitor the conduct of the candidates and the ability of the Electoral Commission to address complaints and suspicions in a transparent and convincing manner.

Côte d’Ivoire’s 2020 presidential elections are approaching, with a storyline that looks increasingly Shakespearean. The elections will be a confrontation between long-standing political rivals, while the prelude to the vote has seen opposition candidates exiled and disqualified, the death of the front-runner, and the incumbent deciding to run for a controversial third term. This policy note assesses the four most likely outcomes of the elections – from an uncontested victory for the incumbent President Ouattara to a resurgence of armed conflict.

Violence 2010-2011 and Winners in the first round.

Côte d'Ivoire's violent 2010 elections. Winners in the first round, based on results released by the Electoral Commission in November 2010. The level and location of violence is based on the Uppsala Conflict Data Program Georeferenced Event Dataset version 20.1 (best estimate).

Slim chances of a happy ending

On 8 July, less than four months before the 31 October elections, Côte d’Ivoire’s prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, passed away from heart failure. As the ruling party’s presidential candidate and anointed successor to the incumbent president, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, Amadou Gon Coulibaly was the clear front-runner. His sudden death was yet another dramatic plot twist in Côte d’Ivoire’s 2020 elections. The ruling party’s dominant political coalition has splintered over internal power struggles and disagreements over the adoption of a joint candidate. The fracturing of the coalition has reignited old political rivalries between incumbent Alassane Ouattara and former president, Henri Konan Bédié. It has also introduced a new rivalry between Ouattara and rebel leader turned prime minister, Guillaume Soro, whom many regarded as Ouattara’s likely successor only a few years ago.

The 2020 elections were always going to be a serious test of the country’s stability, following the years of armed conflict that precipitated the 2010–2011 post-electoral violence; but the recent twists and turns have created a drama in which the chances of a happy ending seem increasingly slim. In addition to the manoeuvrings of seasoned political rivals – machinations that have previously resulted in armed clashes and civil war – Côte d’Ivoire is facing the complications of the Covid-19 pandemic and a fundamental challenge to its constitutional order.

Côte d’Ivoire 2020 Election Line-up

Who's who in the 2020 presidential race?

Alassane Dramane Ouattara (RHPD). Photo.

The Incumbent: Alassane Dramane Ouattara (RHPD)

Age 78. President since 2011. Prime minister 1990-1993 under Côte d’Ivoire’s first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Despite the constitutional controversy, the Electoral Commission approved his candidacy. ADO is the front-runner for the first round, given the regional split among the opposition candidates. Nationalists claim that Ouattara is ineligible, arguing that he is of Burkinabe origin, not Ivorian.

Henri Konan Bédié (PDCI). Photo

The Veteran: Henri Konan Bédié (PDCI)

Age 86. Former president (1993-1999). Under his presidency, ethnicised politics escalated, eventually defining the fault lines of the 2002-2007 civil war.

To challenge Ouattara, he is reliant on building unholy alliances. This seems to be on the cards, as he has spearheaded mass rallies together with his former arch-enemies in the FPI.

Pascal Affi N’Guessan (FPI)

The Aspirant: Pascal Affi N’Guessan (FPI)

Age 67. Prime minister 2000-2003 under Gbagbo. President of FPI, which under his leadership has fragmented, particularly as a faction of hardliners claim that Gbagbo remains the legitimate president. Even if he succeeds in uniting the FPI, he is likely to be reliant on a coalition with Bédié, which would put him second in line to the presidency, at best. Came second in 2015. N'Guessan lost the previous election by more than 70 percentage points but a significant section of his party boycotted the election.

Guillaume Soro (GPS). Photo.

The Challenger: Guillaume Soro (GPS)

Age 48. Rebel leader in the civil war. Prime minister 2007-2012. President of the National Assembly 2012-2019. Currently in exile in Paris after being sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for embezzlement and money laundering. Could mobilise his supporters to disrupt the elections and turn his former combatants against the regime. Ineligible due to prison sentence.

Laurent Gbagbo (FPI). Photo.

The Mobiliser: Laurent Gbagbo (FPI)

Age 75. Former president (2000-2011). As president, he was prone to populistic, xenophobic and anti-French rhetoric. Gbagbo was sentenced by the Ivorian criminal court in absentia to twenty years for embezzlement. Although ineligible, he is likely to influence the elections from afar, as he still holds considerable sway over his party, the FPI. Ineligible due to prison sentence. Indicted and acquitted on charges of crimes against humanity at the ICC in The Hague. Although ineligible, Gbagbo's name was among the 44 candidacies received by the electoral commission.

Charles Blé Goudé (COJEP). Photo.

The Joker: Charles Blé Goudé (COJEP)

Age 48. Leader of the nationalist youth militia wing Jeunes Patriotes. Blé is under house arrest in The Hague pending an appeal. Sentenced in absentia by the Ivorian criminal court to prison for torture, homicide and rape. As a charismatic speaker, he could influence the elections from afar. Blé has held meetings with Soro, but stays close to Gbagbo. Ineligible due to prison sentence. Indicted and acquitted on charges of crimes against humanity at the ICC in The Hague. Goudé is nicknamed Gbagbo’s 'street general' for his ability to mobilise and galvanise young supporters.


Infographic showing result of interview survey of 4 questions concerning elections and violence. Source: Afrobarometer Survey. Round 8, Côte d’Ivoire, 2019.

Low trust in the Electoral Commission and strong support for the two-term limit, survey shows.

International actors may accept Ouattara’s candidacy

Alassane Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term in office is the cause of heated debate and serious concern in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as among external observers. The sudden death of Amadou Gon Coulibaly has allowed Ouattara to appeal to extraordinary circumstances in his third-term bid; but the groundwork for this move was laid by the 2016 constitutional amendments. Ouattara has consistently argued that the new constitution represents the creation of a new Ivorian republic, thereby allowing him two additional presidential terms.

The combined opposition refutes this claim. It filed a complaint with the Independent Electoral Commission to have Ouattara declared ineligible, but the motion was rejected in early September. This leaves the electoral process in jeopardy, as the approval of Ouattara’s candidacy has stiffened the opposition’s resolve and may provoke widespread protest. While 44 candidates were considered, only four were deemed eligible by the Constitutional Council. Following the publication of the list, notable opposition figures such as Henri Konan Bédié, Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo took to social and traditional media, calling for “civil disobedience” to pressure the authorities into rejecting Ouattara’s candidacy, postponing the elections and reconfiguring the central electoral bodies. An extended stand-off regarding the legitimacy of the electoral framework may lead the president to continue his strategy of side-lining his opponents through the judiciary: this course has already resulted in the sentencing of three central players in Ivorian politics.

Seen in this light, international actors such as the UN, Ecowas, France and the EU may all prefer to quietly accept Ouattara’s candidacy and hope for the best. A similar attitude has been adopted toward third-term leaders across the continent – including in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the DRC. With this precedent in mind, the international community is unlikely to risk alienating the Ouattara regime and stirring up tensions, despite the general consensus surrounding the principle of a two-term limit.

Screenshots from Social media accounts

Ouattara’s challengers have taken to both traditional and social media to call for “civil disobedience” against the president’s third-term bid.

Electoral alliances will be the key

Large opinion polls suggest that Ivorian voters care primarily about issues like unemployment, poverty alleviation, economic management and service provision. However, because political loyalties depend to a large extent on ethnic identities and regional belonging, policy positions are unlikely to drive the election results. The front-runner Alassane Ouattara’s main support base is concentrated among ethnic groups in northern Côte d’Ivoire and in southern areas with a large migrant population, such as parts of Abidjan. Henri Konan Bédié has his stronghold among the Akan people of eastern Côte d’Ivoire, while Pascal Affi N’Guessan draws most of his support from the Krou ethnic group in the southwest. Because the ethno-regional building blocks of Ivorian politics are generally too small to secure a majority of the votes, and because there are intra-ethnic cleavages within both the northern and the southwestern constituencies, it is unlikely that any candidate will emerge victorious from the first round.

Ivorian politics are historically characterised by a spectacular degree of political pragmatism, meaning that alliances shift dramatically even in spite of ethno-regional identity politics. The search for a winning coalition has also been a feature of the lead-up to the 2020 presidential poll. Recent political turmoil is, in part, a result of the break-up of the coalition between Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié that secured Ouattara’s victories in the 2010 and 2015 elections. Instead, Henri Konan Bédié is increasingly looking to cement an anti-Ouattara coalition by allying with presidential candidate Affi Pascal N’Guessan and the two exiled and invalidated candidates, Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo. Such an electoral coalition has a far greater chance of defeating the incumbent than any single candidate alone, as it would pool the opposition votes in the (likely) second round.

Moreover, a unified opposition endorsed by Soro and Gbagbo could help such a coalition to split the northern vote along pro-Ouattara and pro-Soro lines, and rally the many hardliner FPI supporters who have boycotted elections ever since Gbagbo’s extradition to face the International Criminal Court in 2011. Whether Bédié will manage to keep the opposition united throughout the electoral contest remains an open question; but a united opposition is almost certainly essential if the incumbent President Alassane Ouattara is to be defeated.

Four post-election scenarios

There are four overall scenarios for how the 2020 elections will play out.

Infographic showing the four post election scenarios with risk of violence

Four post election scenarios with different levels of risk of violence

Scenario 1: Incumbent victory and calm

A first scenario is that the presidential elections are concluded without significant turmoil or violence. This scenario most likely requires the incumbent president, Alassane Ouattara, to win such a clear victory that the opposition has little scope to challenge the results. An outright victory by the incumbent would also allow influential international actors, notably France, Ecowas and the AU, to endorse the election results in the interests of maintaining good relations with the Ivorian government. This scenario is likely if the opposition remains divided or if Alassane Ouattara manages to forge another electoral alliance with Henri Konan Bédié, since the incumbent’s own support base is in all likelihood insufficient for a landslide victory. As Bédié has recently declared his intention of forming a united opposition, this scenario seems increasingly unlikely.

Scenarios 2, 3 and 4 rely on a tight race that remains uncertain until the conclusion of the second round of the elections.

Scenario 2: A close race where both sides accept the outcome

None of the opposition candidates currently has the support base to challenge the president alone. Thus, a close race would require the opposition to rally behind the candidate with the best chance of defeating Alassane Ouattara in a second round. The only possible alliance with any likelihood of mustering the required votes is an entente between Henri Konan Bédié and Pascal Affi N’Guessan. This coalition seems to be on the cards, as the two candidates have already spearheaded joint mass rallies and declared that a united opposition is necessary to defend the country against Ouattara’s (alleged) authoritarian tendencies.

If the losing side accepts the outcome of a close race, this scenario could also lead to a peaceful transfer or consolidation of power. In the case of a Ouattara victory, that would require the opposition to accept not only the electoral process, but also the president’s third term in office. If Ouattara loses in a close race, that would be the true test of his rhetorical commitment to constitutional integrity.

Scenario 3: A close race where the losing side protests

A close race could also set the stage for further and escalated electoral violence, especially if the losing side decides to question the integrity of the polls. This is not an unlikely outcome. Both the Independent Electoral Commission and the voter registration process have come in for heavy criticism from both the opposition and the AU for being biased in favour of the incumbent. A majority of Ivorians profess little trust in the commission’s capacity or willingness to deliver truly free and fair elections.

Moreover, violent protests have marred the pre-election period, and the opposition has recently called for civil disobedience against incumbent President Alassane Ouattara. A tight election would come on top of an already polarised electoral landscape. Little has been achieved under Ouattara’s leadership in terms of narrowing the deep cleavages left by the civil war. De-escalation of such a situation would rely, first, on the ability of the Electoral Commission to address the complaints and suspicions in a transparent and convincing manner and, secondly, on the conduct of the candidates. Both factors should therefore be monitored closely by external actors, most notably Ecowas, the AU, the UN and the EU.

Scenario 4: The straw that breaks the elephant’s back

While a fragile peace has prevailed since 2011, a hotly contested presidential election may very well prove to be the “straw that breaks the elephant’s back”. There are two factors that are conducive to large-scale electoral violence. The first is the continued prevalence of low-intensity land conflicts throughout the country, but especially in the more volatile southwest. Tensions over land ownership are among the most serious sources of conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, and were instrumental in the electoral violence of 2010–2011. If electoral mobilisation leads to an upsurge in land grievances, communal violence could spiral out of control.

A second risk factor concerns the deep divisions within the Ivorian armed forces along the lines of the 2002–2011 military crisis. More than 50 military uprisings have occurred during Ouattara’s presidency, and experts describe the armed forces as deeply divided and dysfunctional. Former mid-level commanders of the Forces Nouvelles rebel coalition – the infamous com’zones – still operate outside the formal chain of command and are far more capable of controlling the rank-and-file than is the civilian government. Any involvement by the armed forces in countering instability resulting from a close electoral race should therefore be viewed as of serious concern for further peace and stability in Côte d’Ivoire.