Justice, national reconciliation, inter-party dialogue, and electoral reform: these are among the many “urgent” agenda items confronting the leaders and the people of Côte d’Ivoire as the October, 2015 presidential election looms on the horizon. This would prove a tall order for any nation, but for this Gulf of Guinea state, which, since 2002, has been wracked by two civil wars, an “electoral crisis,” severe and often violent political tensions, and residual ethnic, spatial, religious, and partisan-based cleavages, the road to peaceful elections and democratization will likely prove particularly challenging.
Re-establishing the rule of law continues to be a priority throughout the country, as such remains a necessary precondition if the repetition of a bloodstained history is to be avoided. The November, 2010 presidential election—which was intended to signify the initiation of a peace process that would end the First Ivorian Civil War—in actuality, served as the catalyst to the Second Ivorian Civil War. Incumbent president since 2000, Laurent Gbagbo, engaged in a second-round runoff election competing against opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara. When the Commission Electorale Indépendante (Independent Election Commission, CEI) announced that Ouattara had won the election by more than half a million votes, the Constitutional Council—Côte d’Ivoire’s chief legal authority—rejected the outcome and discarded a substantial number of votes from the northern regions of the country, the base of Ouattara’s support. Claiming that the votes had not been submitted by the agreed-upon deadline, the Constitutional Council deemed the results invalid, concluding that Gbagbo retained the presidency.
Anger quickly escalated to violence, as forces loyal to Ouattara clashed with the Ivorian military, which remained under the auspices of Gbagbo. By several points of comparison, the post-election conflict served as a mirror to the issues that had fueled hostilities in the early years of the new millennium: the country was bifurcated into the northern “rebel” region which supported Ouattara and the pro-government southern region backing Gbagbo—dichotomous and externally political identities largely driven by religious and ethnic undertones. Four months later, as rebel groups and military forces continued attacks and reprisal attacks, and as civilian fatalities mounted, Gbagbo still refused to step down. Not until pro-Ouattara forces, assisted by UN peacekeepers and French troops, took control of the presidential palace in Abidjan on March 31, 2011 was Ouattara appointed as president. Violence waned, though not before claiming more than 3,000 lives and displacing 500,000 more.
Gross human rights abuses were committed by loyalists to both Gbagbo and Ouattara. As the Human Rights Council upheld, the widespread attacks against civilians constitute crimes against humanity, and in November, 2011, Gbagbo was handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC). So what implications does this abysmal record carry for the 2015 presidential elections?
In May, 2011, President Ouattara asked that the ICC conduct a thorough investigation of the atrocities that occurred throughout the post-election conflict, and vowed not to grant impunity to perpetrators of human rights violations. To this end, the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission was established in September, 2011 to address offenses, foster grassroots reconciliation, and rebuild a sense of social cohesion. Unfortunately, however, the realization of this mandate appears negligible at best. Many Ivorians now perceive the Commission as an empty concept designed to distract civilians from the failure of the Ouattara Administration to undertake any semblance of concrete action. It is beginning to appear as though Ouattara’s political inertia has come to a rather abrupt halt, as scant attention has been granted to issues of rampant unemployment; the uneven distribution and inequitable quality of public services; and land reform—deep-seated issues which have, for more than a decade, served as root causes of pervasive unrest.
Worse than the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission being exploited as a diversion from authentic policy reform (that could have viable effects for long-term peace and national solidarity), the Commission succumbed to “selective justice” and “official amnesia.” Gbagbo’s party, the Front Populaire Ivoirien (Ivorian Popular Front, FPI) has repeatedly refused to accept any responsibility for motivating or sponsoring the post-election violence that occurred throughout 2010 and 2011, demanding that its supporters be released from prison irrespective of the evidence substantiating their involvement in serious crimes. Yet President Ouattara has also remained resolute in the belief that his hands are clean. Perhaps he would be well-advised to review the August 2012 report released by the Ivorian Government’s national commission of inquiry, which documents 1,452 killings by pro-Gbagbo forces and 727 killings committed by Ouattara’s Republic Forces. In a report released on April 9, 2011, Human Rights Watch accused Ouattara’s forces of burning villages in the western regions of the country and carrying out attacks against any civilians thought to be Gbagbo supporters. Despite shared responsibility in the atrocities perpetrated throughout the six months that followed the 2010 elections, Ivorian judges confirmed charges against 84 people—all of whom were supporters of Gbagbo. In a June 26 report, the United Nations secretary-general said that “only perpetrators affiliated with the former regime have so far been brought to justice” and that “of the 207 investigations opened since [the national commission of inquiry report], 204 relate to perpetrators affiliated with former President Laurent Gbagbo.”
In this capacity, leaders have undermined trials, as well as overarching principles of justice, and have and continue to impede the path to true reconciliation on the grounds of political interests. The dialogue between President Ouattara and the FPI remains largely stagnant, as each side chooses to blame the other for the post-election violence, rather than addressing the crimes that their respective forces committed, and adopting and enacting the policy revisions and electoral reforms necessary to ensure that such violence does not erupt in October of 2015. Many onlookers celebrate the scant dialogue that has occurred between Ouattara’s regime and the opposition, though choosing to dismiss the fact that the FPI boycotted local elections in 2013.
The current state of the security sector also carries serious implications regarding the nature of next year’s presidential election. Many leaders from the Forces Nouvelles rebel group, which assisted Ouattara in gaining office in 2011—many of whom have been implicated in war crimes as well as crimes against humanity—now occupy key posts in the military.
Less than two years before the presidential election of 2015, in the absence of progress regarding constructive inter-party dialogue and national reconciliation, Ivorians remain deeply divided on a vast array of topics, including the nation’s election framework. Opposition parties look upon the CEI with suspicion, questioning its legitimacy and doubting its credibility. Many assert that the electoral commission, which is likely to be dominated by the ruling party, no longer reflects the political reality of the nation and ought to be restructured to reflect a balance between opposing parties, if a non-partisan commission proves too unrealistic.
It is clear that much must be done to prevent history from repeating itself in Côte d’Ivoire. The work that lies ahead is political, economic, legal, and institutional. It will prove difficult to move forward with peaceful and stabilized elections if substantive reconciliation fails to be realized. Yet, as Director of the Association of Victims of Gbagbo’s Barbarism, Sanogo Mamadou asserts, “It is only after justice has been delivered that we can talk of reconciliation. Justice must be the basis of true reconciliation.”
Many argue that with the presidential election fast-approaching, political officials are keen to circumvent placing on trial any and all of their respective supporters. Yet, it would appear as though it is actually in their political best interest, as well as in the interest of Côte d’Ivoire as a nation, to seek redress for past atrocities, to reassert a tangible commitment to human rights, and to restore and recognize the dignity of the Ivorian people. Only when such efforts have been comprehensively fulfilled can an inclusive, competitive, democratic, and, most importantly, peaceful presidential election be assured.