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Ivorian president might be sorely tempted to seek a third term. Why he mustn’t

President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

The death of Ivorian Prime Minister Gon Coulibaly and subsequent resignation of Vice President Daniel Kablan Duncan, reportedly on personal grounds, have added heat to the contestations over the presidential elections planned for October this year.

Coulibaly was the chosen successor of the current president, Alassane Ouattara. The events have reignited concerns over a possible third presidential bid by Ouattara which commenators believe could lead to political instability.

The country was expected to have its first ever peaceful democratic change of power, following Ouattara’s announcement in March that he would step down at the end of his current term.

The death of Coulibaly has reopened a Pandora’s box.

Quattara’s governing coalition, Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace, has asked him to seek a third term, following the death of his preferred succcessor. According to the party’s executive director, Adama Bictogo

A majority of our supporters have turned to President Alassane Ouattara. He is our solution…

Importantly, Quattara (78) has been blowing hot and cold on whether he’ll be seeking a third term. He may be tempted to reconsider his promised departure to give himself time to groom a new successor.

In my view he should not. Quattara has done well economically. The economy grew above 8% between 2011 and 2018, becoming one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Staying in power could mean continuing this trend. But, that’ll have dire implications for the country’s democratic trajectory. The potential political and security instability that his return could spark would only serve to undo what he has achieved.

Constitutional ambiguity

When Ouattara came to power in 2010, the Ivorian constitution contained a two-term limit on presidential candidacy. During his 2015 presidential election campaign, he promised to lead the adoption of a new constitution. This was primarily to abolish the principle of “Ivoirité”, which was used to exclude individuals from the Muslim north from high office.

They were excluded ostensibly because of their perceived links with neighbouring countries. It was infamously used to exclude Ouattara, himself from the Muslim North, from running for the presidency in the 1990s.

A new constitution approved in a referendum in October 2016 resolved the ‘Ivoirité’ problem. Under the new constitution, a presidential candidate need only show that he or she is exclusively Ivoirian, born of a father or of a mother Ivorian by birth.

Under the old constitution, both parents needed to be Ivorian by birth. The new constitution also introduced a new senate and a position of a vice president.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the new constitution is what it didn’t say. It retains the two-term limit on presidential aspirants, but says nothing regarding terms served prior to its adoption.

Exploiting this ambiguity, Ouattara declared in June that he could run for two more terms.

He subsequently quipped that he would step down at the end of his term in October 2020 – but on condition that other members of the old guard also abandoned their presidential aspirations. He was referring to former president and current rival Henri Konan Bédié. Bédié (86), a historical adversary of Ouattara’s, hatched and pursued the “Ivoirité” drive in his first stint as president in the early 1990s.

In the run-up to this decision, Ouattara pursued criminal charges against Guillaume Soro, a former ally-turned-rival and presidential aspirant.

Following a declaration of his intent to run for the presidency, Soro was hastily charged and convicted of embezzlement for events dating back to 2007.

Many saw the prosecution and its timing as politically motivated. With Soro effectively out of the way, Coulibaly was set to secure victory for the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace coalition and stay the course Ouattara charted.

Case against a third term

With the vice president resigning, Ouattara faced the uneasy lot of backing a less known face. This could ignite succession battles and potential divisions within his ruling coalition, and a potential electoral loss. The party’s view that he should seek a third term would seem to put paid to that.

But, seeking a third term would deny him the chance to leave a good legacy of an improved democratic dispensation, peaceful alternation of power and economic recovery.

Crucially, a new presidential bid would raise legal complexities and could worsen instability and insecurity at a time of when terrorism is expanding in the Sahel region.

A third Ouattara presidential bid will almost certainly provoke legal challenges because of the constitutional two-terms limit.

Because all Constitutional Court judges were appointed during Ouattara’s reign, such a case would provide a test of their independence. There is a precedent for this.

Courts in neighbouring Senegal held in 2012 that a new constitution resets the term count, allowing then President Abdullahi Wade to run again, drawing serious criticism from the opposition, alleging judicial complacency.

To avoid a similar prospect, Gambia’s draft constitution includes a specific provision counting terms served prior to the new constitution. If adopted, the Gambia would be the first in Africa to set this trend.

Regardless of the outcome, the spirit of the two-term limit in the Ivorian constitution and the general understanding at the time of its writing was against having presidents for life.

More seriously, a third term for Quattara could worsen risks of political instability. Already, the practical exclusion of Soro and a potential return of former president Laurent Gbagbo, who was recently acquitted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, plus Quattara’s historical rivalry with Bédié, have created a potentially combustible political atmosphere.

With the departure of Bédié and other key partners, the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace coalition is effectively composed of Ouattara’s former Rally of the Republicans, with a support base concentrated in the north of the country. Accordingly, the presidential election could heighten inter-regional contestation and rivalry.

Role for the African Union and ECOWAS

Considering their mandate to promote stability and democracy, the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should closely monitor the developments in Cote d’Ivoire. In view of the risks, it would be advisable for them to pursue a proactive rather than reactive approach.

The African Union and ECOWAS would do well to actively nudge Ouattara to leave a good legacy, not just for his country but also the continent.

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