Mali’s constitutional flames could mean smoke in Côte d’Ivoire

COMMENT

Although the dramatic scenes in Mali – where members of the armed forces arrested and then pressured President Ibrahim Bouboucar Keita to step down and dissolve Parliament – have dominated the news of the past week, it is recent reports out of Côte d’Ivoire tell a story of a looming constitutional crisis in the region. 

The military coup in Mali is norm-shattering and threatens to accelerate an anti-democratic trend in West Africa but it has also been bloodless. The pending constitutional catastrophe in Mali’s neighbor to the south does not promise to be the same. In July, the unexpected death of President Alassane Ouattara’s hand-picked successor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, set up a showdown between Ouattara who announced he would a third term, and his political opponents who decry this move as unconstitutional.

Indeed, earlier this week, Amnesty International published a worrying report that does not augur well for the country that goes to the polls this coming October. On August 13, groups of men armed with machetes and – apparently acting in concert with police and security forces – chased-off protesters who were demonstrating against Ouattara’s bid for a third term in office. On the same day, over 70 protestors were arrested for unlawful assembly in what amounts to a contraction of the civic space in the country.

Elsewhere in the West African subregion, armed militias have committed several atrocities, which national armies have served to legitimise by turning a blind eye. Consequently, the collusion between official security forces and organised armed militias should be seen by analysts as a concerning early warning sign of what may lie ahead. 

Only a few months earlier, Ouattara had vowed not to run for a third term, earning plaudits from commentators around the world. Hassan Idayat, the Director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a think tank that specialises in democracy and governance issues in West Africa, noted in March that Ouattara’s decision not to run “has prevented political stalemate, a citizens’ uprising and an outbreak of violence.”

Ever since he assumed office in 2011, marking the end of Côte d’Ivoire’s political crisis, President Ouattara has reaped the benefits of a peace dividend, overseeing an economic boom that made one the country’s economy one of the fastest growing on the continent. 

However, Côte d’Ivoire’s peaceful recent history is belied by its more turbulent past. The country has never seen a peaceful handover of power from one president to another of the opposite party. And, the West African country spent much of the 2000s lurching from one crisis of electoral violence to the next. Now, President Ouattara claims it is his “duty” and “best for the nation” for him to run for a third term, implying that he alone can hold the country together.

The potential for a third Ouattara term will give a new lease of life to the fears of further bloodshed, especially as opposition figures reject Ouattara’s position that he is exempt from the constitutional ban on third terms. The August 13 crackdown on civilians exercising their right to protest by unaccountable armed groups aligned with the state suggests that a return to a more fractious past is possible, even likely. 

This looming crisis, which has roots in Côte d’Ivoire’s previous bouts of post-election violence in 2002-2011, presents a serious threat to the security and safety of the Ivorian people. A particularly acute example of this that presents a severe risk factor has been the inadequate integration of the military over the past decade, which remains affected by partisan divisions. Worryingly, several officers accused of human rights abuses from the country’s previous periods of unrest remain in positions of power. Further, the country’s fickle armed forces have mutinied over a dozen times since 1990, including as recently as 2017 and 2018

This cocktail of factors makes for a potentially toxic combination ahead of the first round of presidential elections. Ouattara’s commitment to running for a third term and disgruntled opposition members who may likely reject the legitimacy of the election present the largest single threat to the peace. 

However, the most proximate threats to civilians are the country’s politicised security apparatus composed of commanders who have few scruples about using force against civilians apparatus and an array of armed militia groups, on whom Ouattara (or other actors) may rely to bolster their forces if they sense the armed forces are insufficiently loyal. 

Ultimately, if cooler heads do not prevail and a political solution is not reached then civilians could once again find themselves in the crossfire in Côte d’Ivoire.

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