Ivory Coast’s Presidential Election 2020 – The Gbagbo Factor

By Mark T. Jones

In recent decades Ivory Coast has proved to be something of a bell-weather country for political and economic stability across West Africa, which makes the fact that there is such an alarming knowledge deficit about it in the Anglosphere particularly regrettable. Politically the situation has proved something of a maelstrom, with matters set to intensify in the months leading up to the 2020 Presidential Elections. The trial of the erstwhile President Koudou Laurent Gbagbo at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has certainly added to the drama. All this calls for some exploration and examination of the dramatis personae who are shaping events and a redefinition of the political landscape and geopolitical paradigms prior to the 2020 Presidential Elections.

Creation of the RHDP and the Quest for Power

Pivotal to any understanding of the current dynamic lies in appreciating the significance of the strategic alliance that resulted in the RHDP (Rassemblement des Houphouetistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix) founded in Paris in 2005 during the first Ivorian Conflict (2002-2010). The RHDP was founded by reputable members of the political opposition that included Alassane Ouattara of Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) and Henri Konan Bedie of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), who had been President of Ivory Coast from 1993-1999. This alliance’s primary objective was to topple the then President, Koudou Laurent Gbagbo with the military support of former rebels led by Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, allegedly backed by some neighbouring countries including Burkina Faso under its then President Blaise Compaoré and the active connivance and support of the French. The RHDP finally took power in 2011 after the bloody post-election crisis in which President Gbabgo had initially refused to accept defeat.

The 2010 Presidential Elections were marked by allegations of irregularities emanating from all sides. Whilst not unique to Africa, such accusations are commonplace not least because electoral commissions often lack the staff and resources in order to carry out sufficient monitoring and thus can often come across as paper tigers. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the disarmament of the former rebels of Guillaume Soro (then an ally of Alassane Ouattara) had not been totally achieved, a significant factor as they controlled some 60% of the country that included the entire north, much of the west, the centre and part of the east, as for the south that was under the control of the Gbagbo regime. Undoubtedly such a situation could have lent itself to irregularities, and certainly helped drive the rumour mill. Towns and cities under the control of former rebels appeared to have more voters than there were registered voters and there were stories of voter intimidation, especially of those intending to vote for candidates other than Ouattara. Whilst verification of such incidents was not always possible, a number were confirmed by national and international observers. The Opposition also accused the Gbagbo regime of having committed irregularities in some of the poll centres in the areas under its control. Clearly there are questions as to whether the election should have been conducted in such an unsatisfactory and seemingly partisan situation.

Elections by their very nature tend to lead to a febrile atmosphere and certainly events in Ivory Coast were going to become all more frenetic and potentially volatile following what happened after the first round of voting in the Presidential Elections. An extraordinary thing happened with one candidate, Ouattara, who was initially in third place behind Gbagbo and Bedie being permitted to proceed to the 2nd round after 600,000 votes were apparently added to his total to the detriment of Bedie who was then knocked out of the Presidential race. Bedie gave way with a reasonable degree of good grace, after having been believed to have succumbed to external pressure and promises connected with the RHDP. Such goings on provided grounds for suspicion among Gbabgo supporters who voiced their indignation about the safety and validity of the results of the 2nd round to the Electoral Commission (CEI), which itself was suspected by them being in cahoots with the Opposition. Indeed, each party issued a statement about the vote (Procès Verbal) that invariably included their concerns that needed to be harmonized with those of the Electoral Commission before the results could be announced. Allegedly, even this was not condcuted properly according to disgruntled Gbagbo supporters. Tension was rising, especially in the Gbagbo camp where there was growing suspicion that a stitch-up was in process. When it was discovered that the results were to be announced in the hotel that had been serving as Ouattara’s campaign base with the approval of the International community this seemed to add insult to injury, doubly so as Ouattara was to be announced as winner.

Gbagbo and his supporters refused to accept the results. Whilst offering to; “Let’s sit and discuss” Gbabgo voiced the need for a re-run of the election, something Ouattara and his supporters simply would not countenance. A stalemate existed, one that had the potential to paralyse the country or worse. The two camps declared their own results, Ouattara through the Electoral Commission recognized by the international community and Gbagbo through the Constitutional Council recognized by the People of Ivory Coast:

Electoral Commission –  Koudou Laurent Gbagbo 46% Alassande Ouattara 54%

Constitutional Council – Koudou Laurent Gbagbo 51% Alassande Ouattara 49%

Each candidate went on to hold their own Presidential Inaugurations. The situation was intolerable and soon Ivory Coast found itself on the slippery slope to civil war.

Reflecting on the tragic events of 2010 onwards there is every likelihood that Gbagbo would not have won the Presidential Election, especially given the recent configurations in Ivorian politics are taken into consideration, as these indicate that alliances are necessary for victory.  Indeed, if Bedie had progressed to the 2nd round he could have been supported by Ouattara and Soro according to the purpose of the RHDP and thus seriously challenge Gbagbo who, despite his popularity was suffering from the wearing effect of being in power almost 11 years. Gbagbo’s tenure in office had been strongly disturbed by a rebellion sponsored from abroad, and he was dogged by allegations of corruption, cronyism, scandals and mismanagement which constituted a body of reasons why the average Ivorian might opt for an Opposition candidate. Sometimes being in power gives the illusion that it will not cease whatever the circumstances. This is what appears to be happening to the RHDP currently. However, due to the major concerns and allegations of massive fraud which undoubtedly changed the course of the events, the best solution would have been to discuss such matters seriously and if necessary cancel the elections and resume it within the timeframe allowed by the Constitution as happened in Kenya with the Presidential Elections opposing the incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta to his challenger Raila Odinga.

In 2010 various African and international leaders prevailed upon the Ivorian President to accept the results of the election, but instead his intransigence exacerbated matters and fuelled loyalist versus opposition violence on an alarming scale. A UN authorised military mission, which saw unprecedented involvement by the French, was instrumental in seeing Gbagbo removed from power.

According to some credible sources there may have been a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between Alassane Ouattara, Henri Konan Bedie and Guillaume Kigbafori Soro to give both political and military support for Ouattara to become the Ivorian President and then ensure a peaceful transition of power to the party of Bedie in 2020 by supporting the PDCI’s designated candidate for the Presidential Elections just  as Bedie had done for Ouattara twice before in the Presidential Elections of 2010 and 2015. The current President apparently is bound by a similar promise made to Soro, who was perceived at the time as a successor to President Ouattara among leaders hailing from the influential Northern Region. Indeed, Soro was the President of the National Assembly and could constitutionally replace Ouattara in exceptional circumstances such as his becoming physically or mentally incapacitated, dismissal/impeachment, resignation, delegation of power, resignation or death in office. Soro’s rebellion against the regime of former President Gbagbo, his military success in 2011 and the various key positions that he has occupied at a state level have added to his credentials. In addition, Soro has a very significant standing among the peoples of the north of the country, he has some powerful connections to allies in Ouattara’s own RDR who view the former rebel leader as a natural successor to Ouattara. Unfortunately, the RHDP promises on which the alliance was made are very difficult to respect, after all you cannot reasonably promise the same thing to two persons.

Dismantling of the RHDP

There is an Ivorian saying that states that – Power cannot be shared like a public bench, and this in many ways underscores the realities facing that RHDP alliance. Realpolitik and power management have resulted in the alliance proving to be inefficient and difficult to sustain. President Ouattara in an attempt to strengthen his hand and that of the RDR (his own political party) has worked progressively to reduce the influence of his two allies. A year after his re-election in 2015 Ouattara pressed for the adoption of a new constitution which practically disqualified Soro from any possible chance of succeeding him as President of the Republic. Mutinies by former rebels supposedly encouraged by Soro periodically took place in January through to May 2017 and shook the country and were an expression of the anger (and intended to be a threat) felt in response to the said constitutional change. Since then Ouattara and Soro have engaged in a serious battle of wills, a battle that has become ever more intense as 2020 approaches. Furthermore, Bedie soon appreciated that Ouattara would not necessarily support his candidature (as the PDCI candidate) for the 2010 elections. Bedie’s suspicion was aroused when Ouattara suggested that the RHDP alliance be dissolved and instead become a unified party that would select the most suitable candidate to stand for the 2020 Presidential Elections. Such a suggestion, even it was genuine at first, was perceived by Bedie and the PDCI as a ruse by which Ouattara would engineer the promotion of a candidate from his own political party the RDR to the detriment of the PDCI. The PDCI was so outraged by Ouattara’s proposals that it decided to withdraw from the RHDP in August 2018 and prepare its own path to return to power, something it had last held in December 1999.

Confronted by the refusal of Bedie to go along with his scheme Ouattara turned to Soro in a search for an alternative heavyweight political supporter, urging him to register with the RHDP or face deselection as President of the National Assembly, hardly an overture likely to be met with a positive response. Ouattara and his supporters, stemming largely from the RDR and other affiliated parties, launched the unified party of the RHDP with himself at the helm at a congress held on 26th January 2019. Unsurprisingly, in view of their past history Soro refused Ouattara’s ‘offer’ and was forced to resign as President of the National Assembly on 8th February 2019. Undefiant, Soro has become part of the opposition and is rallying his supporters for the Presidential Elections through his new political movement – Le Comité Politique.  Whilst Soro has a goodly body of support, it is important to note that there are many Ivorians, especially outside his traditional powerbase in the north of the country, who feel that they can never entirely trust or vote for the former rebel leader. Thus, making alliances look like the only way forward for Soro, and even then, these are not assured in the currrent political climate.

With only a year to crucial elections Ouattara had managed to alienate two principal allies who could themselves find a surprising ally in the form of the former President, Koudou Laurent Gbagbo – a classic case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The shifting sands of politics being such that certain past enmities if not forgotten are often overlooked, or at least put to one side. Gbagbo having been acquitted by the ICC has already held a historic and possibly decisive meeting on 29th July 2019 with Bedie in Belgium – oh to have been a fly on the wall.  The nature of such meetings and possible political machinations have heightened the nervousness of the Ouattara regime and has resulted in increased surveillance of opposition parties and a crackdown on critics, especially those associated with Ouattara’s two former allies. The crackdown and the growing paranoia of the Ouattara regime has led to a growing sense of nervousness, among the population in general, and especially amongst supporters of the regime. In public administration where Ouattara loyalists and supporters invariably ‘rewarded’ with posts and preferment over those sympathies lie elsewhere there is growing concern.  Another dangerous undercurrent is the matter of ethnicity, something that is never far below the surface of Ivorian politics and public life. In the private sector access to finance or markets is difficult for those not perceived as Ouattara supporters, with anecdotal evidence of foreign clients and potential investors being actively steered towards those whom the regime happens to deem politically friendly. The Central Government has become extremely slow to make payments to local suppliers for fear that such funds might be used to help finance opposition parties.

The probable return of former President Gbagbo to Ivory Coast and its political implications

After spending eight year in prison in The Hague, The Netherlands having been charged and pending trial for “crimes against humanity” at the ICC, former President Gbagbo was sensationally acquitted on 15th January 2019. Paradoxically, he has been held under house arrest in Belgium in a trial which will have served to highlight the geopolitical dimension of the Ivorian situation, with intense diplomatic efforts being mounted with a view to exerting pressure over the Francophone West Africa’s most significant political, business and cultural powerhouse. In is worth noting that Ivory Coast currently has a population of 24.970 million which is set to rise to 48.798 million by 2050 according to Belgium-based www.populationpyramid.net The decision to acquit Gbagbo was confirmed by ICC judges during July 2019 and his liberty is not far off, along with his probable return to Ivory Coast by the end of this year. Such a return has undoubted political implications which is already noticeable locally. Indeed, Gbagbo was President of the Ivory Coast for over a decade from October 2000 until April 2011. Official election results for the Presidential Election of 2010 gave him 46% of votes which indicates the measure of support that he has received in the past. Viewed as someone with anti-imperialist views who has long been critical of those powers intent on interring in the country’s internal affairs he has remained popular not only among his own political supporters, the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) but also amongst large sections of the Ivorian population, especially in the East, South and West of the country and even in some marginal parts of the North, a region that remains strongly attached to the RDR of Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo’s acquittal by the ICC at a time when Ivory Coast is experiencing mounting political instability, a growing chasm between rich and poor, increased corruption and a crackdown on opposition parties has caused many to look on Gbagbo’s return as a necessity if there is to be any hope of national reconciliation. For others such a return is certain to enflame old tensions and risk a desire for revenge and retaliation that could well spark civil war. Talk of civil war is no exaggeration, especially in the light of ultra-nationalist rhetoric and increased ethnic tensions in response to the current frustration caused by some policies of the present regime which stands accused of promoting foreign and ethnic interests to the detriment of the majority of Ivorians who are seeing their living standards slide. That said, the majority of Ivorians recognise that renewed conflict can only impoverish themselves and the nation and so is best avoided.

By force of circumstances Gbagbo has become a serious challenger in the race for power in 2020 and will undoubtedly participate through his party in redefining the political landscape of the Ivory Coast in a continent and world context that is undergoing seismic changes.

Redefining the political Landscape and new geopolitical paradigms

  • The local political landscape

The dismantling of the RHDP with the withdrawal of President Ouattara’s two main allies (Bedie and Soro) combined with the likely return of former President Gbagbo has fundamentally changed the Ivorian political dynamic. Where once Ouattara was seen as a figure of hope and of liberation, in some quarters he is increasingly viewed as reactionary and oppressive.

All political parties are busy gearing up for the race for power in 2020. For this purpose, alliances are being formed and broken according to various strategic interests. Ouattara’s RHDP is busy endeavouring to make-up for the loss of two main allies by seeking to attract political figures from affiliated parties and even some from the opposition. With access to public resources the RHDP remains a serious option for those Ivorian politicians interested in securing some sort of post and privileges for themselves and their families.  Naturally, the opposition parties cannot dangle such positions and are often troubled by internal disagreements and splits that are invariably blamed on the dirty tricks of the RHDP. Much of the north of the country continues to support Ouattara, even though parts have rallied behind his one-time ally Soro.

Concerning Bedie’s PDCI it constitutes the first important political party in Ivory Coast one that combines the country’s struggle for independence (1946-1960) and the phase of co-operation with (an often overbearing) France (1960-1999). PDCI is a major electoral force which relies on the loyalty of significant ethnic communities, the Akans/Baoulés located in the Centre, East and South) and that of the ordinary Ivorians of all regions. It is worth remembering that the founder of the PDCI was none other than Felix Houghouet Boigny, the father of Ivorian independence and first President of Ivory Coast. For all its history and apparent strength, the PDCI has lost some important political figures who have gone over to the RHDP and thus it is looking for possible allies in Soro and/or Gbagbo.

As for Soro and Le Comité Politique he has been involved in an aggressive campaign in the north against the RHDP following his forced resignation from the Presidency of the National Assembly. Being personably extremely popular across several regions in the north, Soro also has a major following in the Army, It is important to note that the Ivorian military is mostly constituted of former rebels who having fought under Soro’s command during the rebellion and military success of 2011; as a consequence Soro is viewed as serious threat by the Ouattara regime. Such are the concerns about Soro that his moves are carefully controlled within Ivorian territory and his activities abroad closely followed, especially as invariably he is on the quest for powerful backers in the lead up to 2020. He and his party have suffered minor setbacks and betrayals and thus he and his party are open to suggestions of working with Bedia and/or Gbagbo.

Finally, the Front Populaire Ivoirien remains something of an enigma due to its long absence from the political scene following the deportation of its founder Koudou Laurent Gbagbo to The Hague on 30th November 2011. It has not participated in general elections since 2011 and has faced various internal leadership crisis resulting from the absence, imprisonment, illness or death of leading party officials. Somehow the party has managed to conserve a sense of mobilization thanks to its dynamic campaigners and militants who were instrumental in the ending the 30-year dominance of Felix Houphouet Boigny’s PDCI under their charismatic leader Gbagbo in 1990. Moreover, the acquittal and probable return of Gbagbo to Ivory Coast by the end of the year means that the FPI can position itself in the centre of Ivorian politics as a credible challenger and democratic alternative to Ouattara’s regime, maybe as part of a larger coalition formed with Bedie and/or Soro and their respective parties. At the very least Gbagbo and the FPI appear to be potential kingmakers in any alliance thanks to the gradual international rehabilitation of the former and the fact that the latter has appeared untainted and pure after having been out of the political spotlight for the past eight years.

  • Geopolitics and Ivory Coast

Often overshadowing Ivorian politics are the intense diplomatic manoeurvring of foreign powers that take place for control of Ivory Coast’s future. Indeed, the trial of former President Gbagbo at the ICC gave the Ivory Coast Crisis an international dimension that threw into sharp relief the extend of French interference in its former colonies. For most Ivorians, many Africans and other observers to some extent the trial of Gbagbo was also that French policy in Africa, with many firmly of the opinion that the policies and economic manipulation of the current Ivorian authorities emanate from the Elysée Palace and the Quai d’Orsay. Whilst it is important not to overstate France’s influence, it remains considerable and France is clearly intent on maintaining the influence it has and bolstering those local politicians that it perceives to be co-operative and biddable.

In the years from Gbagbo’s arrest to his trial and acquittal the world has changed considerably, and this has been equally true of Africa.

  • A new interest in Africa has seen the likes of China, Turkey and India become actively engaged with Russia, the United States of America, the Gulf States and Iran following in their wake. Many seemingly ready to challenge France’s economic dominance in countries such as Ivory Coast.
  • There is a growing realisation in some quarters that trade blocks such as the EU for all their hifalutin rhetoric are in effect bastions of protectionism and thus impediments to development across Africa.
  • Africans have become resentful of their continent being constantly viewed by Europe and North America through the distorting prism of mass migration and terrorism.
  • A growing awareness by African people and political elites of geopolitics and the importance of international alliances and the need to ensure that international institutions take a greater interest in Africa rather than merely looking upon the continent as a charity case.
  • Greater foresight planning has resulted in an increased appreciation of the growing significance of Africa as a destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
  • Increased connectivity is opening-up countries such as Ivory Coast as never before with burgeoning youthful populations hungry for education and eager to empower themselves with technology.
  • In several Francophone countries (including Ivory Coast) there is an unprecedented demand for English which by itself is causing many in the younger generations to view their own national story and their place in the world differently to that of previous generations.

Interesting in such a context it might surprise some to discover that countries such as the UK might well have a constructive role to play by helping reshape its own policy towards Africa. After years of post-colonial guilt and general disengagement Brexit provides an opportunity for the UK to liberate itself from the prevailing belief that the EU is the navel of the world. With fifteen of the EU27 set to see their populations stagnate or seriously decline over the years leading to 2050 (Source: www.populationpyramid.net) Great Britain would do well to recalibrate its thinking and look to a continent where growth potential remains considerable. Years of a muddled foreign policy towards Africa in general has resulted in the UK being substantially underrepresented both diplomatically and commercially, and yet some in the private sector are already recognising the opportunities to establish mutually beneficial partnerships.

Mark T Jones
Mark T Jones

There are issues around Confirmation Bias and the knowledge deficit that warrant attention, and these in truth will take time. Indeed, even if Britain remains relatively unknown in Francophone African countries in general and in Ivory Coast in particular it is largely viewed as an influential power that successfully negotiated an orderly exit from its colonies and that has respected their independence as sovereign states. Whatever the average Brit might think, the Commonwealth is viewed as a force for good. Anglophone countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are perceived across Francophone Africa as truly independent and dynamic countries. Such positive perceptions bode well for the constructive British cultural and economic engagement in Ivory Coast and other parts of the continent. It will be imperative that cognizance is taken of events such as the Presidential Elections of 2020, but those already forging connections recognise that a fairer world can be built on cooperation and shared prosperity.


Mark T. Jones

Consultant Futurist

Twitter: @marktjones500

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