There is now a new phrase in global democratic lexicon – An African election – denoting a sham election that is characterized by manipulations of constitutions and constitutional courts, disbandment of strong opposition, physical violence, silencing of opposing voices, refusal of loosing incumbents to step aside and ultimately civil war as an outcome of disputed or sham democratic elections.
This phenomenon is widespread in many countries around the world but more in African countries, some of whose leaders have reluctantly transitioned from brutal and benevolent dictatorships to sham democracies.
This shambolic practice of liberal multiparty democracy does not apply to each and every African country.
However, too many African leaders have tried bending and sometimes totally changing the rules to perpetuate their stay in power over several years above their democratic mandates.
These leaders have therefore typified African democracy as a sham.
The manipulation of Supreme Courts and electoral commissions seem to be the easiest route for many African leaders who are bent on staying in power against the popular will of the people.
The very unpopular leaders resort to the brutality of jailing and intimidating opposition candidates to prevent them from taking part in elections altogether.
History Repeats itself with dramatic emphasis in so-called democratic elections in the Ivory Coast
All this put together typifies and captures the political situation in the world’s Cocoa hub Ivory Coast and its current leader Alassane Ouattara whose actions seem to be gradually pushing the West African nation to the brink of another brutal civil war akin to a similar one that occurred about a decade ago under his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo.
For almost two decades, starting from 2002, the country has moved in and out of civil wars between different factions but always for the same reasons.
The end of the 33 years of autocratic rule of the country’s independence leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 forced the Ivory Coast to open itself to a democratic governing process for the first time.
Since the country’s independence, the political system was bound tightly with the personality cult of one strong strongman.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s demise brought the political system face-to-face with open, competitive elections. This in itself brewed conflict.
Besides that, the country’s prosperity within the West African sub region has attracted West African immigration especially to its northern territories for decades and generations mostly from predominantly Muslim countries like Burkina-Faso and Guinea.
By 1998, approximately 38.6 percent of the total population of the north were Muslims and significantly larger than the next largest religious group, Christians, who constituted approximately 29.1 percent of the total northern population.
Nationwide, is about 26% of the total population.
These northern Muslims, though mostly second and third generation Ivorians are still largely considered as ‘’foreigners’’ by the larger and southern populations.
A new term emerged in the political lexicon of the country Ivoirité, originally coined by Henri Konan Bédié, a former President, to denote one cultural identity of all those living in Ivory Coast.
However, this term came to be appropriated by some nationalists and xenophobesand their press surrogates in the country to represent only the southern populations of the country.
This began the discrimination toward Ivorian people of Burkinabé origin in terms of voter rights in the political and democratic process.
Physical violence began in the country through attacks against ‘African foreigners’ but real conflict began to entrench itself in the society when a discriminating law against northern Ivorians was quickly drafted and came into effect through a referendum just before the year 2000 elections.
This evil law required both parents of any Presidential candidate to be born within Ivory Coast. Clearly, someone like the current President Alassane Ouattara did not qualify to run for President under this law.
It was clearly interpreted as an attempt to discriminate against the long-time opposition leader and northern Presidential candidate who represented the predominantly Muslim northern immigrant peasants from the democratic process.
President Laurent Gbagbo was considered the architect of this law to enable him perpetuate himself in power beyond his democratic mandate.
This apparent injustice triggered a mutiny from northern soldiers within the Ivorian army and started the first Ivorian civil war in September 2002.
This first civil war attracted mercenaries from Liberia and Sierra Leone, while the French military and the ECOWAS forces also went in for peacekeeping purposes.
It was an opportunity for rebel forces in neighboring war-torn countries to loot the massive resources of Ivory Coast.
Though a peace pact was signed between warring factions and rebel groups in 2004, tension, violence and divisions in the country continued until 2007 with the formation of a so-called government of national reconciliation that brought in Guillaume Soro, political head of the rebels into the government of national reconciliation to share power with Laurent Gbagbo in 2003.
This Linas-Marcoussis Accord however, collapsed in the same year with each side accusing the French of supporting the other side.
Fighting resumed again and in July 2004, the factions gathered again in Accra, Ghana for peace talks and agreed on another ceasefire.
By November 2004, fighting broke out again following the refusal of the intransigent and incorrigible Gbagbo government to re-examine the eligibility criteria for the presidential poll and to get rid of the obnoxious electoral laws.
President Laurent Gbagbo betrayed the Accra Accord and a sustained attack on the free press followed, with newspapers sympathetic to the cause of northern Ivorians banned whiles others were completely destroyed.
Dissenting radio stations were also shut down. The Laurent Gbagbo government postponed elections for over five years.
The Ivory Coast national football team qualified for the World Cup in 2006 and that helped to reduce tensions, secure a truce and brought together warring factions to restart peace talks that culminated in a peaceful soccer match in the rebel capital of Bouaké, and brought warring factions together for the first time in 2007.
In March 2007, another peace agreement was signed between the government and the New Forces in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
New Forces leader Guillaume Soro was subsequently appointed prime minister in April of that year.
In the presence of President Gbagbo and rebel leader turned Prime Minister Soro, the dismantling of the UN buffer zone began as a signal to the end of the first Ivorian civil war.
Elections that should have been held in the country in 2005 finally took place in October 2010.
This time, Alassane Ouattara, the northern candidate was allowed to contest the elections and he won.
The independent electoral Commission declared the former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara winner of the elections with 54%. Expectedly, President Laurent Gbagbo and his ruling FPI disputed the results and charged the constitutional court that he had packed with his own loyalists, to make a final decision.
The unduly influenced court claimed there had been massive fraud in the Forces Nouvelles de Côte d’Ivoire (FNCI) rebel controlled north and used that as a basis to overturn the decision of the independent electoral commission in favor of President Laurent Gbagbo.
The court claimed Gbagbo had won the elections by 51%.
The international community and foreign observers sided with the independent electoral commission and recognized Alassane Ouattara as President-elect of Ivory Coast and setting the stage for a power struggle in the midst of chaos.
Second Ivorian Civil War of 2011
The contentious outcome of the 2010 elections led to the beginning of severe tensions and violence in the country ignited by the ill-timed and ill-intentioned decision of the Gbagbo-controlled Constitutional Council.
After Gbagbo inaugurated himself into office as President without the recognition of the international community, Ouattara, with the backing of the United Nations, ECOWAS and the African Union, also organized an alternative inauguration to form his own parallel government within the same country.
The ensuing armed conflict between the two forces of power left 3,000 people dead before Laurent Gbagbo was finally defeated, arrested, overthrown and detained with the support of French and UN forces in April 2011.
The arrest and detention of President Gbagbo and his subsequent transfer to the international tribunal at the Hague to be tried for War crimes practically brought an end to the second Ivorian civil war of 2011 but not without needless and untold suffering by the masses of Ivorian people.
President Ouattara’s taking over power in Ivory Coast was seen as the beginning of new democratic reforms that are more inclusive of all Ivorians regardless of their ethnicity or religion or tribe.
He ruled for five years (2010-2015 and secured a second and last term between 2015-2020.
He was expected to retire in 2020 after ten years in power but this was not to be as he chose rather to remain in power against the popular will of the people.
He did this by organizing a typical ‘’African Election’’ – manipulating the constitution, barring strong rivals from participation in the elections, use of intimidation and violence, suppression of free speech and press freedoms and a combination of divide and rule tactics among the different ethnic, tribal and religious groups in the country – the same tactics that Laurent Gbagbo used to unjustifiably keep him away from power for so many years.
President Ouattara Chooses Sham Democracy
In a Machiavellian fashion, President Alassane Ouattara and his party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) announced in 2017 that he would not run again after being President for ten long yeas.
This was after he and his ruling party had already manipulated the constitutional court in 2016 to change the constitution to make it possible for him to continue to run for President after his two terms.
Despite publicly repeating this pretentious vow not to run again for President even in his address to the Ivorian people, Ouattara did not allow internal democracy to prevail within his own ruling party.
Rather, he hand-picked and imposed his own appointee and puppet Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as the ruling RHDP party candidate, bypassing his own Vice President Daniel Kablan Duncan, who resigned in protest against the undemocratic tendencies of President Ouattara.
As if providence went against him, Mr. Coulibaly fell sick of a heart disease and died in a rather dramatic fashion during a meeting of the Council of Ministers.
Is Cote D’Ivoire on the Brink of another civil war?
The ruling RHDP party was left without a candidate. And this paved the way for a new leader. President Ouattara refused to consider the candidacy of his own Defense Minister Hamed Bakayoko who had opted to replace the late Prime Minister, with the excuse that the man had links to drug traffickers, albeit he was never tried or convicted in any court of law.
In July 2020, Ouattara finally dropped all pretentions and took the mask off his face with an announcement of his own candidacy for a third term in office.
He replied to his critics by making the morally bankrupt and fraudulent argument that his previous two terms did not count toward the two-term limit in the new constitution of 2016.
To solidify his hold on power, Ouattara started going after his strongest political opponents in and outside the country.
He began by using the courts to sentence Former Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, living in France, in absentia to 20 years in prison and given a $7.6 million (£6.1 million) fine, immediately after he announced his intentions to contest the Presidency against the President.
This sentencing essentially barred the former rebel leader-turned Prime minister from the political process.
Although former President Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted of all charges of war crimes against him and released by the International Criminal Court, President Ouattara immediately put him on trial in absentia and barred him from entering the country.
This also put an end to any hopes of his return to contest the elections.
The manipulated Constitutional Council eventually approved only four candidates; President Ouattara, Former President Henri Konan Bédié from the PDCI, Former Prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Kouadio Konan Bertin, a dissident from the PDCI, setting the stage for mass protests and violence leading to a sham election day.
Election Conduct Amidst Opposition Boycott
In an election essentially boycotted by the opposition and marred with violence, President Alassane Ouattara was declared winner with 94% of the vote with a mere 54% voter turn out.
This means half of the country’s voters did not take part in elections.
The Constitutional Council quickly confirmed the sham election results.
Last week, the Ivorian opposition said it was creating a transitional government that would organize a new election.
However, the Ivorian opposition is weak and divided on tactics and approach to their resistance to President Alassane Ouatttara.
One opposition candidate Pascal Affi N’Guessan who got 1% of the vote according to official results, is already in detention by security forces for his role in calling for civil disobedience in the country.
The opposition leader was quoted by international media as saying that “Maintaining Mr. Ouattara as head of state is likely to lead to civil war,” adding that the opposition recognizes a power vacuum in the country.
The ruling party has warned the opposition against any “attempt to destabilize” a nation which is yet to fully recover from a second civil war that followed the disputed election in 2010.
Perhaps, this history of civil war caused by disputed elections is what President Alassane Ouattara and his ruling party ought to have thought about before manipulating the constitution to perpetuate themselves in power.
The ruling party of President Ouattara has even accused the opposition of sedition since calling for a transitional government.
As has been noted by the AU, ECOWAS, EU and even the UN, the same incitements to tribal, ethnic and religious hatred that were employed prior to the last civil war were now being re-echoed in the country.
The UN refugee agency has confirmed that thousands of Ivorian people have begun fleeing to neighbouring West African countries such as Ghana, Burkina-Faso and Guinea because of their fear of escalating violence and civil unrest.
By the day of election, at least 35 people had died in political violence.
Indigo Côte d’Ivoire, an independent election advocacy group told the media that the election was marred by violence, intimidation and malpractices.
Other observer groups have said significant numbers of voters were disfranchised because polling stations did not open, and that even those people who were able to vote did so “in a context of fear and anxiety”.
Independent reports say 23% of polling stations did not open at all on election day because of threats or attacks from supporters of the President, and that in 5% of polling stations, election officials received threats with several polling stations ransacked in opposition strongholds and election materials burned.
Even on the day of the election, protests went on in various parts of the country including the polling station were President Ouattara cast his vote.
Amidst all the violence, the electoral commission has dismissed claims of a fraudulent election saying the violence “only affected 50 polling stations out of 22,381”.
After voting in Abidjan on Saturday, Mr. Ouattara appealed to deaf ears for an end to the protests.
In response to the violence and the protests from opposition groups, the embattled President said “I call on those who called for civil disobedience, which led to the loss of life, to stop because Ivory Coast needs peace, these are criminal acts and we hope that all this can stop, so that after the election this country may continue on its course of progress, which it has enjoyed over the last few years.”
The 78-year old Ivorian President obviously does not recognize himself as the root source and cause of all the so-called violence and criminal acts that currently threaten the peace of Ivory Coast.
The AU, ECOWAS and UN as well as the French forces that helped bring Ouattara to power in 2010 do not seem as resounding in their condemnation of his autocratic tendencies as the Ivorian people would have expected from them.
Even more Unfortunate, is the fact that the leaders of the West African neighbours of Ivory Coast, whose people, by all means, shall be negatively affected in every possible way by any ensuing civil war in that country have been mute on the unfolding political crisis in that country.
While Ghana is preparing for its own elections in December and focusing on its own internal affairs, Guinea is engulfed with its own post-election’s political crisis akin to the one currently unfolding in Ivory Coast.
Burkina-Faso seems seem to be natural allies to President Alassane Ouattara, a northern Ivorian of Burkinabe origin.
While African people in the past looked up to the advanced democracies and Big Brother countries like the United States to threaten and sanction such power drunk African leaders like Alassane Ouattara as a deterrent, the current situation where American democracy itself is under threat with its own disputed elections and the blatant refusal of defeated sitting President Donald Trump to concede defeat in the 2020 US elections to President-Elect Joe Biden, will not allow such fanciful expectations from African people to be realized.
Indeed, the ongoing American election dispute has been called ‘’An African election’’ for the white house.
Fortunately for the Americans, unlike the Ivorians, the sitting Americans President cannot entrench himself in power against the popular will of the people by manipulating political institutions of state.
This brings back to mind the statement from former US President Barack Obama that, ‘’Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions’’.
So: who is watching as Ivory Coast once again slips back into its dark days of a third civil war in less than three decades?
What will stop the former rebel leaders who were barred from taking part in elections and other peeved opposition forces in that country including embittered supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo from regrouping to fight in a new civil war?
Perhaps there is still time for reason to prevail and for dialogue to take place to forestall the unfortunate occurrence of another civil war.
What is very clear to all is that the Ivorian President has not learned his history lessons well.
If indeed he did learn and still went ahead to create this potential explosive situation in his country, then he simply personifies the power drunk African autocrat who is interested in power solely for self-gratification rather than for the greater benefit of his people.
Such leaders deserve to face the collective sanction, isolation and effort of all in the sub-region and Africa at large to remove them from power before they have the opportunity to perpetuate genocide on their own people.
It is Africa’s collective moral responsibility towards its people to resist leaders like President Alassane Ouattara and his cohorts in the war mongering business.
By: Sacut Amenga-Etego