Is transition always progress? Is liberal democracy the ultimate and natural destination for everyone? When it comes to predictions, there are regions of the world that are particularly attractive, due to their complex situations.
Like in many cases of sub-Saharan Africa, the evolution of Cote D’Ivoire in political terms raises many questions regarding especially the direction of this evolution.
The announcement in 2013 of Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara that they will be running for president in the 2015 elections leads to a problematic situation. In a first row, both Bédié and Ouattara, having passed the age limit imposed by the Constitution (Art. 35), from a technical point of view, no longer qualify for such a position. In this respect, the decision of the two to run for office clearly undermines the Constitution. However, before looking into such technical features, it is necessary to try and outline the nature of the Ivorian regime in a broader sense. And the answer is never a clear-cut one.
In 2002, in a classification of hybrid regimes, the Ivory Coast was placed in the category of competitive authoritarian systems, as it had been a one-party dominant state, with the Ivorian Popular Front controlling the National Assembly. However, this state of affairs took a turn in 2011, when the Ivorian Popular Front boycotted the parliamentary elections. Consequently, Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans managed to win a majority of 42.1%. So, regardless of the circumstances of the turn-over, Côte d’Ivoire has slowly started to change its trajectory to something different than the pure type of competitive authoritarianism, and now “borrows” features from all kinds of political templates. According to O’Donnell’s delegative democracies, it makes use of the feature that whoever wins the election to the presidency is thereby entitled to govern as he or she sees fit, thus becoming the only embodiment of the nation and its interests.
Another political template resembling the Ivorian one in many ways is Andreas Schedler’s electoral democracy, because the Ivory Coast violates at least four of the key- elements within what he metaphorically calls the chain of democratic choice in elections: the free formation of alternatives (domination of a single party until 2001 and restricting access to the political arena to some presidential candidates since 2000); the access to alternative sources of information (there is only one national television channel, tightly controlled by Laurent Gbagbo’s Popular Ivorian Front); insulation (vote buying is quite common) and finally, irreversibility of the elections (undermined in 2010, when there were attempts of former president Gbagbo to prevent the newly elected president Ouattara from taking office). However, the electoral process is not the only variable that should be taken into account, as there are other vital dimensions of constitutionalism. In this respect, the Constitution of Cote D’Ivoire deserves special attention, particularly two of its stipulations.
First, when it comes to guarding the main principles of constitutionalism, the inclusion of former Presidents of the Republic in the Constitutional Council is problematic for the process of judicial review. After 2010 elections, the incumbent Gbagbo was declared the winner by the Constitutional Council. At the same time the Independent Electoral Commission, along with other international observers and organizations declared Ouattara the legitimate winner. This led to what is known as the Second Ivorian War between the two political rivals, which ended only in April 2010, when Ouattara’s French- backed forces arrested Gbagbo in Abidjan. It is often that the principle of judicial independence is used to tame criticism and avoid any kind of accountability, and in the case of Côte d’Ivoire, considering the components of the Constitutional Council, this grant of independence is to subservient, if not corrupt judges.
However, the second, and one of the most controversial provisions of the Ivorian Constitution would be Article 35, which conditions the statute of President of the Republic in two ways. On one hand, restricts access to the presidential race to those who are under forty or over sixty-five years old, and it imposes the ethnic, nationality and citizenship criteria so as to restrict the possibility of becoming President of the Republic by any “potential enemies” on the other. But such a controversial provision did not come out of the blue.
For many years, the Ivory Coast has been nurturing an identity politics, characterized by a growing tendency to depict part of the population as “foreigners”. By the year 2002, the divisive nature of the politics of belonging had become obvious through the First Ivorian War.
When Laurent Gbagbo took power in 2000, he was supported mainly by the Western Ivorians (namely ethnic groups of Wé, Bété , Dan, and Attie) which were considered backward by the French during the colonial era which did not enjoy the same treatment as the eastern Baoulé and by marginalized groups in Abidjan. In order to consolidate his support among westerners and southerners and to prevent potentially dangerous northern politicians to claim the presidential office, Gbagbo, as his predecessors Henri Konan Bédié and Robert Guéï, distorted and manipulated the concept of Ivoirité. Initially a term introduced in the name of a peaceful coexistence between the “indigenous” Ivorian population and the recent immigrants, Ivoirité gradually became a weapon of xenophobia, exploited in the exclusionary rhetoric of the Ivorian political elites. As a response to Gbagbo’s take-over, a rebellion was launched in the Muslim- dominated north, which was supporting Ouattara. Atrocities were committed on both sides, people were killed, raped and tortured.
According to some, the origins of these conflicts can be traced back to the colonial era, when the French imposed a system based on ethnic territoriality to help govern the new territories. Each ethnic group was allotted a particular area based upon an rudimentary understanding of each tribe’s sphere of influence (domain). This developed a common conscience of binding people to the land. When the first post-colonial president Félix Houphouët-Boigny decreed that the land belongs to whoever nurtures it, it resulted in a wave of internal migration, mostly from the north to the south. Consequently, a competition for the land started to flourish, degenerating into animosity between the northerners and the southerners over land.
Coming back to the present and reflecting upon the future (the 2015 elections in particular), it is best to be prudent, and not look for clear-cut answers and predictions. Ideally speaking, if the Ivory Coast aspires to one day become a consolidated liberal democracy, it can only achieve this by the very basic instruments of democracy, and not through the formal adoption of a political design.
The direction in which the Ivorian political system will evolve is still debatable, as the current state of partial equilibrium is extremely fragile. In many ways, the removal of Laurent Gbagbo from office was seen as a positive move, but now it is up to the main political actors to manage the difficult circumstances they are faced with. It is yet to be seen whether Ivorians have learned from the past and will prefer to sort to compromise and consensus, rather than physical force to achieve their goals.