Côte d’Ivoire descended into chaos following the October 2010 elections. One of the enduring lessons from this tragic experience could be that elections should never give a reason to set one’s country on fire. Like it or not, however, presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire have become a malaise that grips the country every five years. And while the 2015 presidential elections were carried out peacefully, the recent October 2020 elections unfortunately were not. The tensions and violence that accompanied it, though far less devastating, brought back macabre memories of the 2010 post-election carnage that left 3,000 people dead and forced more an a million to flee their homes.
Tensions first emerged well ahead of the elections, when incumbent President Alassane Ouattara announced he would run for a third term on June 8, reneging on his initial pledge not to seek reelection. Some 44 individuals presented themselves as candidates for the presidential race. However, the Constitutional Council approved only four of them as eligible, infuriating opposition leaders and their supporters. They demanded that the council recuse itself and that the government reform the electoral management bodies and postpone the election. However, it was the Constitutional Council’s validation of Ouattara’s candidacy without a substantiated legal basis that brought the opposition out into the streets in protest. Opposition leaders declared the formation a national transitional council and a boycott of the election. Meanwhile, mass protests in mainly opposition strongholds grew increasingly violent, erupting at times in targeted ethnic attacks. All in all, the upheaval claimed over 85 Ivorian lives and caused millions of dollars worth of property damage. The electoral commission nevertheless held the elections despite a boycott by the two main opposition parties.
In the aftermath of the 2010 post-election violence, President Ouattara’s government launched a range of transitional justice measures, including a truth commission, criminal prosecution, and a reparations program for victims. However, these processes were fraught with controversy and dysfunction, and after several years of operation they showed minimal results. From its inception, the truth commission was poorly designed, and the politically motivated appointment of its commissioners undermined its independence and credibility. It never created the platform it promised for Ivorians to engage in meaningful dialogue, and it failed to take victims’ experiences and needs into account in its final analysis. As a result, its findings and recommendations were largely useless for the country. As for criminal justice, the government never initiated any serious criminal investigations against those most responsible on both sides for the deadly violence. It then abruptly abandoned the effort entirely, offering instead a blanket amnesty to everyone implicated in the post-electoral violence. Finally, the reparations program that the government put in place has lacked transparency and clear criteria to determine victims’ eligibility. Most victims still do not know whether they qualify for reparations. The bitter truth is that the failure of these processes contributed to the country’s current political crisis and ethnic rancor.
That said, it is not too late for genuine accountability and social cohesion in Côte d’Ivoire. However, social cohesion cannot be built in a vacuum or imposed by those in power. It requires that the government and society broadly examine past human rights violations and that the government address their underlying causes, which trace back to past interethnic oppression and abuse; acknowledge and repair the harms suffered by the victims of these violations; and establish mechanisms that can guarantee the integrity, inclusivity, and accountability of democratic institutions. This process requires an inclusive dialogue with community, religious, and women leaders, as well as victims’ groups. It also requires the government to take its obligation to prevent future violence and address past abuses seriously. The political parties, which claim to represent ordinary Ivorians, certainly have a critical role to play. However, the primary responsibility to initiate this process lies on shoulders of the government in power. For the process to be legitimate and successful, though, the government must demonstrate a commitment to democratic principles and respect for victims, women, civil society representatives, and members of the opposition by giving them a seat at the table.
PHOTO: President Alassane Ouattara, pictured here in September 2017, won a controversial third term in office this past October. (lxcpqrbu/Flickr)