Ivory Coast is in crisis. The instability arising from the post-election violence of five years ago continues to deepen. The government is increasingly repressive. Many Ivorians cannot meet the cost of living. Jobs are scarce. Insecurity perpetrated by gangs of unemployed youths makes life uncertain. Yet the government of Alassane Ouattara doesn't seem concerned with any of that. His current project is a new constitution whose barely hidden agenda is to keep him in power beyond 2020.
In March 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that the regime in power in Cote d’Ivoire has “not yet delivered justice for victims of grave crimes by both sides in the country’s 2010-2011 post-election crisis and called [President] Alassane Ouattara and his new justice minister, Sansan Kambile, to strengthen the country’s justice system so it can deliver long overdue justice. The report corroborates the observations and call of Mgr. Ahouanan, a Catholic prelate and chair of the National Commission for Reconciliation and Reparation for Victims, who admitted that division, anger and revenge are still running deep among Ivorians and that Alassane Ouattara should hold frank dialogues with opposition parties and leaders to boost the national reconciliation process.
What Human Rights Watch and the Catholic clergyman mean is that five years after he bullied his way into power with the help of the French army, Alassane Ouattara has failed to settle the deep divisions that plague the country. This is the reason why social justice activists and democrats are dumbfounded to see that Alassane Ouattara trivialized this failure but rather chose to ignite a new political crisis by summoning a referendum to vote for or against a new constitution that his appointed team of experts is drafting. Since its announcement, the idea of the referendum has fragmented further the already unstable social, ethnic and political landscape of Côte d’Ivoire. The new crisis lies in the disconnection between what the new constitution aims at and what the Ivorian social and political body is really concerned with at the moment.
On one hand, Alassane Ouattara, who has the infallible support of his adherents and party hardliners, says that the new constitution will begin the Third Republic, eliminate all discriminatory terms contained in the current constitution as recommended by the 2003 Linas-Marcoussis agreement, and create a position of vice-president and a new legislative branch, the Senate. Now that the draft of the new constitution is available, we wonder if the announced changes are sufficient enough to undertake a major overhaul of the constitution.
On the other hand, a greater majority of Ivorian political actors are convinced that a new constitution does not address, cannot address, and will never address the most pressing issues that the country is facing. What are these issues? First, Ivorians want to know why they cannot afford to feed their families, to find jobs and better opportunities while Alassane Ouattara boasts that the economy is growing at a double-digit rate. They want to know why the cost of life has gotten higher and higher, why more people live in poverty, and why electricity bills have increased so much in recent months. They want the regime in power to know that the violent mass protests, which erupted in four major cities of the hinterland in July 2016 and left buildings looted and two people dead, are the expressions of their dissatisfaction and distrust of this regime. In fact, it seems that the double-digit growth rate stubbornly refuses to trickle down to the ordinary citizens. There is no hope that it will ever trickle down as long as Alassane Ouattara implements his ethnic-based and multinational companies-oriented governance.
Second, Ivorians want answers to why hundreds youths and political opponents are still in detention without trial, and why the regime continues to crack down on activists as well as stifle the opposition and the press. The unwarranted arrest of Mrs. Antoinette Meho, (a women’s leader eager to bring to the world’s attention the unquestionable proof of a genocide of the Wê people in western Côte d’Ivoire) is the latest evidence that Alassane Ouattara will continue to repress all those who dare to dissent from his governance. Ivorians want to follow the trials of Laurent Gbagbo, Ble Goudé and Simone Gbagbo at The Hague and in Abidjan in order to know for themselves the truth about the decade-long crisis that has destroyed the social and political fabric of the country. In fact, the trials have become the favorite topics of their daily discourse. This is the reason why they feel betrayed and disappointed any time the ICC stops broadcasting The Hague trial live.
Third, Ivorians want answers to why student unions are banned and why faculty members are repeatedly striking. They believe that the violent clashes between students and police forces in Abidjan are no grounds to suppress academic freedom and the freedom of speech and association. The ban confirms that Alassane Ouattara wants to rule the country as if we were still in the era of the Cold War-fueled one-party system. With the new technologies of information and the advanced stage of globalization, no regime should attempt to roll back political pluralism. It seems that Alassane Ouattara has not yet realized that the world has changed and that in this era of increasing social media, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have their counterparts everywhere in Africa and in Côte d’Ivoire.
Fourth, Ivorians want to know when Alassane Ouattara and his regime will resolve the question of insecurity that has been worsened with the circulation of weapons left in the hands of the rebel soldiers who helped him into power. In Abidjan, for instance, the greatest insecurity comes from the “microbes,” the name of these unskilled school-dropout youths who roam the streets, attack, rob, terrorize and murder civilians. No day passes without news of civilians being robbed at gun- or machete-point or simply murdered.
Lastly, Ivorians are concerned with the fate of the 50,000 exiled families and individuals who are still in refugee camps in Ghana and Liberia. What conditions should be met for these refugees to return home? What will be the implications of their return? Will their return help with reconciliation or reopen unhealed wounds?
The discrepancy between Alassane Ouattara’s project and the true issues that the country faces explains the growing robust mobilization against the referendum he announced. The fact of the matter is that the Ivorian political landscape is still too cloudy to hold a clear and transparent referendum that will reflect the wishes of the people. A referendum is “a mechanism, which allows voters to make a choice between alternative courses of actions on a particular issue” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, 3rd edition). A referendum is “an election device in which a law can either be accepted or repealed based on the popular vote of the people. In this process, voters can reject or accept a law or statute passed by a legislature by taking a popular vote on the issue.” (www. study.com). A referendum is “a form of direct democracy,” a mechanism through which an issue is “brought back to the people to give a clear answer that a government might need.”
The above definitions tell us that to be democratic, a referendum requires the unconstrained and transparent participation of eligible voters. But with thousands of Ivorian citizens still in exile, hundreds of youths and political leaders in political detention, and opposition parties that are suppressed, the idea of a constitutional referendum is illegitimate.
The second reason is that Alassane Ouattara’s constitutional project has an undemocratic agenda. In fact, the reference made to the 2003 Linas-Marcoussis agreement is a flimsy argument because this agreement was designed and imposed by the French government to weaken then President Laurent Gbagbo and preserve the geostrategic and economic interests of France in Côte d’Ivoire. After the failure of the rebel forces to overthrow Laurent Gbagbo’s regime in 2002, “Linas-Marcoussis” served as the new route to achieve regime change. The proponents of the agreement reverted to the now berated solution of power-sharing between Laurent Gbagbo, who wanted a revision of the economic treaties between Cote d’Ivoire and France, and the rebel forces and their allies (Alassane Ouattara) who favored the status-quo and the hegemony of France. Linas-Marcoussis was so ineffective that subsequent peace talks took place between 2003 and 2007. Therefore, the reference to Linas-Marcoussis accomplishes one simple thing, that is to confirm that the French government is tacitly backing the abusive regime.
The third reason is that the referendum will serve the same purpose of the unfair presidential election that took place in October 2015. The purpose is to constitutionalize repression, keep the country in a chronic state of instability, and above all ensure the survival of Alassane Ouattara’s regime after 2020. In 2020, Alassane Ouattara’s two terms – supposing that he was regularly elected in 2010 and 2015 – will end. Yet, there are blinking signs that he is not ready to exit. The idea of a third and maybe fourth term in office should not be dismissed, because Alassane Ouattara’s entourage took the lead to ventilate this possibility. Mr. Cissé Bacongo, one of his raucous advisors, said that Alassane Ouattara deserved a third term in office. Mr. Cissé Bacongo does not ignore the fact that the two-term limitation is a sacrosanct disposition to foster democratization and effective renewal of political leadership.
Another of Ouattara’s close allies, Mr. Amadou Soumahoro, the Secretary General of the RDR, also warned that they were ready to ask him to serve a third term, if the debate about the aftermath of 2020 were to continue. What is surprising is that Alassane Ouattara has not rebuked any of his allies, nor has he given any unambiguous sign that he would not seek reelection in 2020.
Even if Alassane Ouattara is silent about his intentions beyond 2020, his silence sounds more like an avowal that a 2020 retirement is uncalled for. His violent accession to power, repressive governance and failure to condemn overtly the heads of states, who tampered with the constitution of their countries, are sufficient reasons to conclude so. With the new constitution, we are about to witness in Côte d’Ivoire a remake of what happened in Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo, Chad and Burundi. In each of these countries, incumbent leaders simply amended the constitution during their second term in office. Whereas the amendments triggered political mayhem in some cases, they were most often successful. More than often, global political actors such as big states and multinational companies factored in the success of the undemocratic constitutional amendments or changes. For instance, the French government welcomed the reelection of Sassou Nguesso (Republic of Congo) and Idris Deby (Chad), both of whom have served more than two terms in office because they are friendly dictators and pillars of the France-Africa relations.
Alassane Ouattara is about to receive the same support, because he is the pillar of the French geopolitics in West Africa, especially. This is the reason why France, and to an extent the United States, have not yet muttered a word about the legality of the referendum. Nobody at this point really expects them to say something.
What is certain is that Alassane Ouattara is poised to call a referendum now that he has received the support of the one-sided parliament. But it is also certain that opposition parties although they have been weakened will muster strength by rallying their members and the general Ivorian population around four points: they will make it clear that the very goal of the new constitution is to allow Alassane Ouattara to claim the right to run again, regardless of whether such a goal can cause violence and chaos.
As far as we are concerned, there are other important factors that the new constitution hinders. The first thing is that what Côte d’Ivoire needs at least a two-year political transition during which a more equitable commission should be set up to make national reconciliation effective and to hold a fresh round of open and transparent elections. The second thing is that the new constitution does not resolve the problems posed by the hegemonic presence of France, whose prevalent meddling into Côte d’Ivoire’s domestic politics accounts for the country’s instability, failed democratization, and economic lethargy.
* Eric Edi, PhD, is Professor of Global Politics and African Studies, Philadelphia University, and Executive Secretary of Committee of Actions for Cote d’Ivoire (C.A.C.I).
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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