By Karana Olivier, AT Contributing Author
On Friday, former President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) – the country’s main opposition party – and civil society actors organized a march in which thousands of men and women took to the streets in Abidjan to protest the proposal to introduce a new controversial constitution.
It was the largest peaceful demonstration in the capital since civil war and the massive post-electoral violence in 2011 thrust the country into an uneasy political standoff. The ensuing tensions left half of the country too afraid to speak out against injustices, for fear of repression at the hands of Ivorian authorities.
The demonstration also marks a potential turning point in the politics of Côte d’Ivoire. That spark may make more of a difference in December’s parliamentary elections than it will in Sunday’s referendum vote – elections that will solidify or weaken President Alassane Ouattara’s own alliances or agenda.
Disenchantment with Ouattara
Things are slow to change in Côte d’Ivoire. Since the 1993 death of the founder of the nation, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the leadership of the world’s top cocoa producer has been held by the same cast of characters: former president Konan Bedié, Gbagbo, and second-term incumbent Ouattara, each taking turns in forming alliances or fierce oppositions.
The current alliance is between Bedié and Ouattara, the man he once sent to prison. If Gbagbo wasn’t facing International Criminal Court charges for crimes against humanity, it’s entirely likely that Ivorians would see another round of shifting alliances, perhaps this time between Bedié and Gbagbo.
Politics is that big man’s game, but in Côte d’Ivoire it’s made little difference to the majority of Ivorians whose lives are far removed from the pool of politics and never dip their hats into its waters of influence and prosperity.
At the start of Ouattara’s presidency, many of my Ivorian colleagues expressed the hope that this administration would be different. Stability seemed to come swiftly, as did a flood of new creditors and investors. According to the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) the nation’s economy will have grown nearly 9.5 percent by the end of 2016.
Côte d’Ivoire was open for business under a fiscally conservative, laissez-faire president who had once held a senior position at the IMF. So, for the few with the means to take advantage of these new developments, Ouattara is seen in the best possible light. For them, he is the guarantor of a more prosperous region, but many Ivorians do not feel this way.
In 2013, upon his return from a meeting with donors in Europe and the United States, Ouattara held an uplifting press conference at the Abidjan airport. Speaking of his successes in attracting new funding and investors, he proclaimed that it was raining new funds and opportunity.
A boisterous and punchy crowd yelled back, “But we are not even getting wet!”
That spirited exchange was three years ago and the crowds have thinned considerably. Then came the rolling power outages, a lack of transparency over the March terrorist attack, the sudden spike in electricity bills, the call to replace the old driver’s licenses with identical new ones, the question of disappearing funds meant to finance the renovations of university campuses.
It seemed that every month a new scandal emerged, suggesting lackluster management skills on the part of Ouattara. In this slightly more dynamic environment, the opposition has started to find modest traction with a renewed focus on social justice, a theme that carries increasing weight despite a history that makes it difficult to rally much enthusiasm around an opposition party.
Social justice drives Ivorian votes, but will the FPI respond?
Ouattara is still the favored president in the West and still manages to instill respect and admiration from many of the regional heads, but in Côte d’Ivoire, the view is that the new politics are much like the politics of old, yielding few tangible benefits.
Still, the FPI has all but written itself off the political landscape by refusing to participate in the political sphere, and boycotting the local, legislative and presidential elections because of weakly defined unmet security concerns.
Ivorians who are seeking agents of change want a voice in making that change, and are looking for leadership that will take social justice and the process to secure it seriously.
When Ouattara announced that the nation would hold a snap referendum for a newly drafted and controversial constitution which the public had not seen or read, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Indeed it is the form rather than the content that seems the main cause for concern.
Many of the Ivorians I speak with say they do not oppose any particular provision of the new draft, not even the once-controversial idea of allowing someone with a non-Ivorian parent to run for president – notable, given the bitter dispute over Ouattara’s Burkinabe lineage in the past.
Rather, the notion that citizens are being asked to vote “oui” on broad concepts but not on the final language itself is what gives pause. Another real stumbling block is the format of the vote itself.
Ivorians will receive a red or green ballot for them to place in the box, rather than checking off a vote on a single ballot, as is the norm in most Ivorian elections to allow those unable to read or write to participate in the referendum. The format reduces the privacy of the vote and opens the field for mass fraud, raising still more doubts about whether the government is truly seeking a broad consensus on this proposal or merely going through the motions.
On Sunday, I expect Ivorians will deliver a blind approval of the proposed changes to the new constitution – but the real winner will be the opposition, who may have found the first public sign of growing political space in the country in some time. That’s if they are ready to seize this Ivorian moment and look ahead to December.
Karana Olivier is an anthropologist and conflict resolution mediator alternately living in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and the United States. He is currently an independent international development consultant specializing in the assessment and crafting of peacebuilding programs, with significant field experience in West and Central African nations.
Image: AP File Photo