On 31 August a coalition of opposition groups threatened to block Ivory Coast’s 25 October presidential election, raising the prospect of increased unrest over the next two months. Although unlikely to reach the levels of violence seen after the 2010 election, heightened security and divisions among rival parties will fuel disturbances in key urban areas, including Abidjan. Post-election, there are few signs tensions among opposition supporters will dissipate and competition within the ruling coalition and military over the choice of a successor for President Alassane Ouattara could spark longer term unrest.
The Coalition Nationale pour le Changement’s (CNC) threat to disrupt the election comes after months of political tensions between the opposition and government. The CNC formed in May as a loose alliance of 13 political leaders from several parties under the leadership of former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny. They have accused the government of failing to respond to their concerns of pro-government bias in the voter register and the composition of the electoral commission. They have also warned insecurity could hamper voting, referring to attacks on voters and candidates that have affected past elections.
So far, there is little to suggest the CNC’s threat to block the election will result in any significant outbursts of violence. The CNC contains many of the more moderate elements of the opposition and the alliance has promised to act within the law. It has nonetheless warned that it will engage in lawful protests and sit-ins as part of its campaign. The diverse regional make-up of the CNC means that protests could take place across a broad geographic area, but are likely to be concentrated in the opposition strongholds in the south and east, particularly the commercial capital Abidjan and the port city of San Pedro, which serves as the principle export hub for the cocoa industry.
A far greater risk of violence stems from the hardline faction of the main opposition party, the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI). The FPI has declined to participate in the electoral process since the party’s former leader, Laurent Gbagbo, was arrested in April 2011 after refusing to concede defeat in the 2010 election. The ensuing crisis led to a four-month conflict in which 3,000 people were killed and many subsequently fled into exile fearing arrest. Over the past year, the FPI’s official leadership under Pascal Affi N'Guessan has attempted to return the party to the political mainstream, but has faced intense opposition from Gbagbo hardliners led by Aboudrahmane Sangare. In April N’Guessan said he would represent the FPI in the presidential election, but he has continued to face challenges to his position from dissenting factions.
There are now fears the Sangare-led faction of the FPI could use violence to disrupt the vote. On 18 August, the faction declared it would boycott the vote, warning against anyone “fraudulently” standing under the FPI banner, in what has been interpreted as a direct threat to N'Guessan’s faction. There is a clear precedent of violence between rival factions of the FPI and in September 2014, hardline activists ransacked the party’s headquarters in the Cocody district in Abidjan. Further incidents of violence are possible in both Cocody and the pro-Gbagbo district of Yopougon, with potential risks to bystanders. The FPI’s long-running tactic of using xenophobic rhetoric to rally support, means those considered not to be ethnically Ivorian may be at particular risk of attack. This is directed primarily at Ivorian nationals accused of sharing the same Burkinabe heritage as Ouattara, though the party also frequently employs anti-French rhetoric, suggesting Westerners may be at risk. Abidjan is expected to see significant security deployments over the next two months to mitigate these risks, which could disrupt travel.
Ouattara favourite to win
The absence of a coherent opposition means there is now little to prevent Ouattara from securing a clear victory in the forthcoming election. The leader of the third largest party, former President Henri Konan Bédié of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d'Ivoîre (PDCI), announced in September they would back Ouattara’s ruling Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR). The same PDCI-RDR alliance was responsible for Ouattara’s victory in the 2010 election, placing the incumbent in a strong position in the coming vote. Although several PDCI figures were opposed to the union with the RDR and defected to the CNC alliance, they do not command sufficient popular support to present a serious challenge.
A clear victory for Ouattara will reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the 2010 post-election crisis, when the result was close enough for the incumbent Gbagbo to dispute the outcome. The election will do little, however, to resolve long-running grievances among FPI supporters, who have long-accused the RDR of marginalising them from government and singling them out in war crimes investigations. These complaints have undermined reconciliation efforts and could see the re-emergence of the militant wings to re-establish the party’s dominance in the event of any future political crisis. As all the main parties are ethnically aligned this creates a highly volatile situation in which political crises can quickly lead to far wider instability.
Post-election succession debate
A particular source of instability will be the debate surrounding the choosing of Ouattara’s successor, which is set to intensify as soon as the coming electoral period is complete. The PDCI’s pact with the RDR is based on the expectation that the ruling party will back their candidate in 2020, when Ouattara’s final term permitted by the constitution is due to end. Many within the PDCI, however, already doubt the RDR can be trusted, which accounts for the high number of defections from the party to the CNC.
One of the main reasons for this is the ascendance of Guillaume Soro, the leader of the Forces Nouvelles militia that formed a loose alliance with the RDR in 2010 to oust Gbagbo. Since then, Soro has become Speaker of Parliament, which under the constitution makes him heir to the presidency if Ouattara, who is 73 and rumoured to be in ill-health, were to become incapacitated. Although the Forces Nouvelles has officially been integrated into the military, they are widely regarded as an independent force loyal to Soro. Evidence of this was seen in November 2014, when thousands of members held violent protests nationwide over wages and had to be paid millions of dollars to return to their barracks.
Developments within the military should be monitored closely as an indicator for wider political stability in Ouattara’s second term. Any further mutinies or protests, particularly in relation to the succession debate, could represent a deterioration in the relations between the government and Forces Nouvelles that could lead to wider violence. Any attempt by the government to reform the military to disrupt the existing Forces Nouvelles chains of command should also be monitored as potential triggers of unrest.
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