Can ECOWAS Avert Imminent Chaos in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea?

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By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

Ghanaian President Nana Akuffo Addo inherited the chairmanship of the ECOWAS at a delicate moment in the sub-region. Elections, always source of conflict on the continent, are taking place in Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Ghana in the next few months.

If all seems quiet in Ghana, situations are different in Burkina Faso and Niger where rebel insurrections have made big parts of the countries ungovernable, making voting problematic. In Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, two presidents are forcing their ways into unconstitutional third term campaign in uncertain and potentially explosive contexts.

Presidents Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé followed the same script. They waited to win their second term to  tweak the constitutions and “decided” that the political clock was reset to zero, as if the first two terms never happened.

 Alassane in Cote d’Ivoire and Condé in Guinea have carried out “institutional coups” just as the soldiers in Mali, according President of Guinea Bissau Umaro Embalo at a recent ECOWAS summit. Nigerian President Buhari echoes his words, calling on his colleagues to “resist the temptation of prolonging their stay in power.”

The Africa Court of the Human and People Rights, an organ of the African Union (AU) has asked Ivorian authorities to drop all charges against Mr. Soro Guillaume, former Prime minister and Speaker and restore all his rights.

 In response, Ouattara said Cote d’Ivoire does not recognize the competence of the Court and was withdraw its membership. Last week, the same Court “ordered” Ouattara to allow Gbagbo to participate in the electoral process with all his rights, including being a candidate. Gbagbo was tried and set free by the ICC in The Hague. He has not been able to return home, waiting for a passport he applied for months ago. 

 Late 2019, a delegation from NDI and ECOWAS went to Guinea to speak to Condé. He told them to go mind their business. 

Recently, the European Union and the United Nations both called for free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections in Cote d’Ivoire, where the Constitutional Council disqualified 40 of the 44 people who submitted their candidacies for the presidency, among them, former President Laurent Gbagbo and former rebel leader and Speaker Soro Guillaume.

In reaction, Soro said there will be no elections if Ouattara is on the ballot. In Abidjan, opposition parties led by former President Konan Bédié and Affi N’Guessan head of a break-away faction of Gbagbo’s party although both certified to run, joined that position and called for civil disobedience to reject Ouattara’s candidacy.     

In both countries, political parties are ethnically and regionally identifiable. Therefore, any political upheaval could turn into an ethnic conflict. In Cote d’Ivoire, there is religious layer.

ECOWAS has so far been silent on the looming crises, still focused on the situation in Mali. It sent a group of “experts” to Guinea to audit the voter registration list. The group spent a few days in Conakry, spoke to the government and decided that the list had no fault and could be used in transparent elections. This was done without ever consulting opposition parties who had called for the audit.

In Cote d’Ivoire, the same faces are re-emerging, as in 1993, after the death of Felix Houphouet Boigny, the “father” of independence: Bédié, Gbagbo and Ouattara. Each of them played a role in the instability that plunged the country in political uncertainty.

Bédié had to wrestle power from Ouattara, after the death of Houphouet. Ouattara was prime minister and Bédié was constitutional heir as Speaker but days after Houphouet’s death, Ouattara was still conducting government affairs. Bédié walked into the television studio to proclaim himself president. Ouattara joined the opposition.

To keep him at bay, Bédié launched a policy of “Ivoirité” which excluded people like Ouattara, northerners, from national leadership. After the military transition that overthrew Bédié, Gbagbo won the elections. Then the rebellion divided the country for 10 years. Gbagbo signed a decree in 2005, allowing Ouattara to run. This led to the 2010 elections.

The three men went series of alliances and personal betrayals, something that only exacerbated the mistrust and enmity between them. In the 1990s, when Ouattara was sidelined, he joined Gbagbo in a coalition against Bédié.

When Gbagbo became president and faced the rebellion, Bédié and Ouattara “regrouped” as the “children of Houphouet,” forming the  “party of Houphouetistes for democracy and peace,” – RHDP in French – which also included the rebels of Soro Guillaume. That union has fallen apart,  with Bédié and Soro linking up with Gbagbo to form an opposition front against Ouattara. As a student leader, Soro was a follower of Gbagbo.   Ouattara and Condé are embarked on a dangerous and sinister path which could have negative consequences for democracy and the rule of law in West Africa and on the continent.  Chairman Addo can stop the train wreck because nothing is yet set in stone and there are clauses in ECOWAS charter on governance that allow him to intervene.

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