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Aug 18, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

7 mins read

A Presidential Power Play Underway in Ivory Coast

A Presidential Power Play Underway in Ivory Coast
(SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The president's proposed constitution will contain clauses capable of transforming the governing structures of the country.
  • The impending creation of a vice presidency and a joint ticket will stabilize succession and may prevent possibly destabilizing candidates from taking high office.
  • The current president may use the new vice presidential post to prepare a chosen successor to replace him in 2020, paving the way for a continuation of his policies.

President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, the world's leading producer of cocoa and cashews, is moving to fulfill his 2015 campaign promise to put a new constitution up for ratification. The resolution authorizing the draft of a new charter passed overwhelmingly in the Ivorian National Assembly, 203-6, and the document, which is being drafted by a panel of experts, will be the subject of a popular referendum likely by the end of October. It appears it will pass despite some political opposition.

Three clauses written into the draft constitution may greatly improve the stability of Ivory Coast, which has seen annual economic growth averaging almost 9 percent since 2012. The stability of French-speaking Africa's largest and most well-developed country in turn would affect the wider region, especially landlocked Burkina Faso. The changes are especially important as Guillaume Soro, the president of the Ivorian National Assembly and a former rebel commander, attempts to secure his political future while Ouattara serves out his final term in office.

The constitution that Ouattara is shepherding would replace the one drafted in 2000 when the country was in the midst of a coup. With the document, he likely wants to erase the divisive Article 35, which restricts who can stand in presidential elections. This article was inserted with the specific purpose of denying Ouattara — a national political figure — the presidency. (His candidacy was denied because in the 1980s, he received a scholarship from Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, which required a foreign passport.) This development, which caused a massive backlash, was one of the key grievances of political factions from the north, which is generally Muslim and has strong cultural and familial ties to Burkina Faso, during the simmering civil wars from 2000 to 2010.

An upswell of support for his candidacy in 2010 gave Ouattara an opening to defy the provision, and he won the election. France and the international community supported his victory during a post-election crisis sparked when incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo (who is currently being tried for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for his actions during the period) refused to step down. Thus, removal of Article 35 would take down a barrier that has already practically been voided and would prevent the further politicization of presidential candidacies.

New Political Institutions

The rewritten constitution's goal of establishing new political institutions, however, may be the most crucial for the country's future stability. Ouattara announced Aug. 6 that the new constitution will likely create the post of vice president and form a senate. The senate would be filled by "former servers of the state," although it is unclear whether this means former government officials or whether they would be appointed or elected. The senate would govern alongside the existing National Assembly as well. Still, the exact functions and powers of the proposed body are vague. The creation of a vice presidential office, however, is more significant. Currently, the successor to the president in the event of incapacitation, death or resignation is the president of the National Assembly. That succession order was decreed by President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (who ruled from 1960 to 1993) to help his chosen successor, Henri Konan Bedie, become president upon his death.

Now, Guillaume Soro is next in line should something happen to Ouattara before his term ends. This possible succession could be problematic for Ivory Coast's stability. Soro was an important commander of rebel forces in the north fighting against the Gbagbo government during the first and second Ivorian civil wars. Given that atrocities were committed on both sides in the conflicts, Soro accumulated a number of powerful enemies in both Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, which under former President Blaise Compaore supported the rebels. That the personal security of Soro and of those closely allied with him depends on their continued control of political power in Ivory Coast is crucial to assessing his motives. If Soro loses power, he could be subjected to political retribution in Ivory Coast or could even face charges in Burkina Faso, which has issued an international arrest warrant for his supposed role in the failed 2015 countercoup against the Burkinabe transitional government. This will become an increasingly likely event as Ouattara, with whom he has had a working alliance, exits the political stage in 2020. Consequently, Soro has refused to rule out a future role in Ivorian politics, and his ambitions may extend to the presidency, or at least to controlling the person in office.

Implications for Regional Stability

In proposing a constitutional rewrite, Ouattara has no doubt considered his legacy and how it fits into the broader narrative of Ivory Coast. Houphouet-Boigny, who dominated the country's political and economic institutions during his presidency, left a legacy of personal rule after his death. He had also mastered a well-developed patronage machine during his lifetime. But the network broke down after his passing. Bedie, who succeeded him, was unable to master the complex system, leading rival factions — most notably in the military — to displace him in 1999. The personalization of power has represented a systemic threat to the country's political stability. Instability in Ivory Coast, a key economic and security pillar in France's regional framework, can ripple across the West African region.

In light of this, the attempt by Ouattara to create a new post of vice president is notable. If the proposed constitution is ratified, presidential and vice presidential candidate pairs as early as the next election in 2020 will run on a joint ticket, likely stabilizing the presidential succession order. It would also force political parties to strike a greater balance among factions in the country, as the north-south split remains a holdover from the political strife of the 2000s. Put simply, to win enough votes, parties might feel compelled to balance their tickets regionally instead of a candidate representing one political party and geographical zone defeating others in a politically bruising contest.

But the changes may also constrain Soro's ambitions to control the political system going forward. In addition, should the new constitution be implemented, Ouattara will need to fill the new vice presidential post sometime at the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017. Reports indicate that he may tap close ally Amadou Gon Coulibaly, the secretary-general of the Ivorian presidency, for the role. That would propel Coulibaly into the national spotlight several years before the 2020 elections and give him a political boost by linking him to the popular Ouattara in addition to enabling a continuation of Ouattara's successful economic policies.

Ouattara's proposed new constitution may well change the dynamics of the Ivorian political system, increasing the odds of the country stabilizing after years of volatility. Yet the ambitions of figures tied to the civil war — namely Soro — to secure their political security may come into conflict with Ouattara's long-term plans. In light of this, Ivory Coast's battle between institutionalism and personal rule may again play out in 2020.

Lead Analyst: Stephen Rakowski

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