Political reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire: Where next for a divided country?

August 2021

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On 27 July 2021, Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara welcomed his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo to the presidential palace in Abidjan. Remarkably, the two political heavyweights were meeting for the first time since their rivalry triggered a civil war in 2010 – marking an historic moment in Ivorian politics. President Ouattara initiated the meeting as part of ongoing efforts by the government to ease political tensions, with it coming one month after he authorised Gbagbo’s return from exile following his acquittal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of war crimes in the Ivorian civil war. Speaking after the meeting, Ouattara was upbeat, telling reporters that “the turmoil was behind them” – attempting to portray a new dawn for Ivorian politics. While the optics are positive, the reality is naturally more complicated. Whether this supposed reconciliation between Ouattara and Gbagbo will result in concrete steps to end over a decade of political tension in Côte d’Ivoire remains to be seen, with the situation having several complex, and diverse, possible trajectories.

A fractured past: Ivorian politics characterised by rivalries and conflict

Until 1993, Côte d’Ivoire was a single-party state, governed by the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) – the party of the country’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Since then, multi-party rule has been introduced, though the same political figures – Alassane Ouattara, Laurent Gbagbo, and Henri Konan Bédié – have dominated and driven Ivorian politics. These three men have been both allies and adversaries, forming and ending coalitions depending on prevailing circumstances, a dynamic that continues to play out to this day.

Over the past two decades, this dynamism has resulted in several political crises, with violence and instability frequently ensuing. Rivalries over political power and leadership succession after Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993 led to two military coups followed by civil war in the 2000s, while the disputed outcome of the October 2010 presidential election again plunged Côte d’Ivoire into political crisis. In 2020, a new challenge reared its head, as President Ouattara pursued a third term in office – a decision that many decried as unconstitutional. While Ouattara was re- elected, the poll was marred by violent protests, political detentions, and an opposition boycott. With Côte d’Ivoire’s already fractured political scene further weakened by this episode, the question of national reconciliation – a longstanding rhetorical objective in Côte d’Ivoire – has again become pressing.

Previous attempts to heal Côte d’Ivoire’s fractured political environment through reconciliation mechanisms have been unsuccessful, largely due to a lack of resources and political commitment. Soon after taking office in 2011, Ouattara’s administration established a truth and reconciliation commission to probe the 2010-11 post-election violence and unify the country. However, the commission was hindered by a lack of financial and human resources, and ultimately failed to deliver upon its mandate. Accountability for post-election violence has still not been established

– with the crisis’s victims aggrieved by its perpetrators’ impunity.

Within this context, AML considers the recent meeting between President Ouattara and Gbagbo to have several prospective future trajectories. Below, we set out three different scenarios for the development of the reconciliation process between Ouattara and Gbagbo, beginning with the most probable, and ending with the least.

Scenario 1: Ouattara and Gbagbo reconcile in the short-term, with the latter mounting a political comeback

Under AML’s first scenario, Ouattara and Gbagbo would continue to make efforts to normalise their relations and ease political tensions, while protecting their political interests. In this scenario, Ouattara would announce additional measures designed to show that his government is intent on repairing relations with Gbagbo, including by pardoning the former president. Gbagbo’s outstanding 20-year prison sentence handed by an Ivorian court in November 2019 for misappropriating funds during the 2010-11 political crisis, for example, would be dropped. In return, Gbagbo would agree to not legally challenge Ouattara’s third presidential term, deemed unconstitutional by the two main opposition candidates, Affi N’Guessan and Bédié, who still do not recognise his victory.

In this scenario, however, the two men’s reconciliation would not result in firm measures to collectively address the deep roots of Côte d’Ivoire’s political conflict – with the risk of new cycles of violence remaining constant. On a personal level, a decision by the Ivorian government to not enforce the judicial verdict against Gbagbo would allow him to make a political comeback. With the next presidential election four years away, Gbagbo would have enough time to rebuild his political movement, preparing to run in the 2025 election. Unresolved disagreements around constitutional provisions, notably term limits for president, would then again occupy centre stage in Ivorian politics, likely reigniting tensions between Ouattara and Gbagbo – thus exposing Côte d’Ivoire to a new phase of political uncertainty.

AML judges scenario one to be the most likely to occur. Since meeting with Gbagbo, Ouattara has taken cautious steps to address some of his requests, including releasing 69 political prisoners arrested over the post-2020 election political and intercommunal violence. Ouattara has yet to discharge or pardon those detained in the aftermath of the 2010-11 civil war, though this would be a powerful card for the president to strengthen reconciliation efforts with Gbagbo. Moreover, with Ouattara having just begun his third term as president, he is unlikely to risk angering Gbagbo’s supporters and triggering violent riots by imprisoning the former president. This is particularly true given Gbagbo’s recent political mobilisation – also evidence of his desire to return to frontline politics. In August 2021, Gbagbo announced his intention to form a new party before the year’s end, which is expected to be strongly aligned with the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) – a political party that Gbagbo headed until 2015.

Scenario 2: Ouattara and Gbagbo commit to retire from politics in 2025

In AML’s second scenario, Ouattara and Gbagbo’s increased dialogue would lead to an agreement by which they both commit to retire from politics in 2025. Ouattara would leave behind a legacy of political reform while Gbagbo would seek to avoid taking action that could lead the Ivorian government to incarcerate him for past offences. In this scenario, Gbagbo would use the warm relationship that he has established with Bédié to convince him not to run in the 2025 election. The agreement would be the culmination of three years of dialogue on political and electoral reforms, resulting in the modification of the constitution – with provisions such as the 75-year age limit for presidential candidates being restored. While this would exclude Ouattara (79), it would also enable him to prevent Gbagbo (76) and Bédié (87) from running for office.

Under this scenario, Ivorian politics would be opened to a new generation – a milestone considering that Ouattara, Gbagbo and Bédié have dominated the country’s political scene for the past three decades. With the next election four years away, who the three men’s successors would likely be is unclear, particularly given that their departures could result in the emergence of new political parties and independent candidates.

In AML’s estimation, the likelihood of seeing the three men jointly announcing their retirement from politics, at least in the next two years, is slim. With Ouattara having only started his third- term last December, considering his political retirement is unlikely to be among his immediate priorities. The agreement would also be highly dependent on the willingness of Gbagbo to take a political backseat, which, as outlined above, seems unlikely in the short-to-medium term.

Scenario 3: Ouattara and Gbagbo launch nationally inclusive political dialogue

Under AML’s last scenario, reconciliation efforts between Ouattara and Gbagbo would result in sincere and nationally inclusive political dialogue. In this scenario, other key political leaders such as Bédié would be invited to participate and, through a national forum of reconciliation, the root causes of political disputes and violence would be discussed.

In this scenario, all parties would commit to assessing their responsibility for election-related crises, for which justice has not been rendered. National reconciliation could result in greater degrees of accountability for the 2010-11 post-election violence, even if in this scenario it remains highly unlikely that Gbagbo and Ouattara would personally acknowledge responsibility. Nevertheless, it would demonstrate their efforts towards reconciliation and help foster an environment conducive to a less contentious and more peaceful election in 2025.

AML views this scenario to be highly unlikely. As previously mentioned, the idea of national reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire has already been severely compromised in the past. Additionally, since his 2020 re-election, although Ouattara has established initiatives aimed at defusing political tension, these have fallen short of addressing the root causes of conflict. Moreover, last month Gbagbo and Bédié jointly called for inclusive national dialogue, a request rejected by Ouattara, with his ruling party The Rassemblement des Houphouétistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix, stating that it does not recognise the need for national dialogue, nor the existence of a political crisis. This latest development further undermines the prospect of Gbagbo and Ouattara joining hands to initiate inclusive discussions in the near future.

Whatever the exact fallout of Ouattara and Gbagbo’s handshake, their ongoing efforts to reconcile are unlikely to significantly transform Côte d’Ivoire’s political scene in the short term. With the personalisation of Ivorian politics remaining strong, in the near future, these individuals will continue to dominate the country’s political landscape. In doing so, regardless of their direct participation, they will establish the fault lines on which the 2025 election is contested, and ultimately shape Ivorian politics over the next four years.