A year ago Cote d'Ivoire Ouattara's shirt was on fire. Now he is sitting pretty, and the region breathing easier

The country goes into an election year that will define its future--and have a major influence on neighbours.

IT is rarely a good sign when soldiers take to the streets, more so in a country that is a major regional economy and headed into an election while still grappling with ghosts from its last poll.

Cote d’Ivoire president Alassane Ouattara will have heaved a sigh of relief this week after protesting troops agreed to go back to their barracks, having poured out into several cities of the West African nation to demand better wages and unpaid allowances. 

The country’s streets have since returned to calm, but the protest was a wake up call for Ouattara, who came to power following a disputed election in 2010 that left more than 3,000 people dead. The other protagonist in that election, Laurent Gbagbo, is due to be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for crimes related to the resulting fall out.

But what is perhaps more striking to keen Ivorian watchers is what a difference a few months make to the country’s politics. At the beginning of this year, Ouattara looked to be in a tight spot. His health was the subject of speculation, especially after a month-long hospitalisation in a French hospital in February.

His hold on the presidency appeared tenuous, as his government struggled to establish his authority on areas that had supported Gbagbo in the bitterly divisive election, especially in the West. Steps towards reconciliation appeared to be foundering: few had any positives for the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CDVR) that had just handed in a report on abuses in the dispute period, but recommended little else by way of healing deep rifts.

Most reform areas were also lagging—disarmament and demobilisation teams had made some progress on re-integrating ex-combatants, but were still struggling to rope in loose pro-regime militias.

Embattled Ouattara

The United Nations’ pointman in the country, Aïchatou Mindaoudou, in January told the Security Council that security and justice reforms were also urgently needed in the country, a position corroborated by independent expert Doudou Diène in a subsequent visit.

Gbagbo’s former party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) was proving troublesome, experiencing a kind of renaissance while overly suspicious of Ouattara’s proffered olive branch, which included the release of its members held without trial since the election.

The FPI was also waiting for a decision by the ICC on whether it would confirm charges against Gbagbo, and retained hope he would be released in time to lead the party into elections, in lieu of which it would not participate, further threatening national recovery.

Around the corner, another potential party pooper awaited: former president Henri Konan Bédié and his Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) outfit, which is still able to call up the spirit of the nation’s revered founding father, Felix Houphouet Boigny, looking an electoral threat.  

To complicate the picture, preparations for the October 15 election were badly off course, including a census, voter listing and the constitution of a credible electoral commission, while funding remained an issue as the country struggled with the fallout of having defaulted on its debt.

A turnaround 

To further spook investors, closely-watched rankings such as World Bank’s Doing Business placed the country in the bottom quarter, while the Mo Ibrahim-sponsored Index of African Governance ranked it 44th of 52 countries, and 15th of 16 West African states.

But since then the positives for the country have come in slow but steady drips. 

Ouattara has all but dispelled speculation about his health, and in addition to being visible at home, has been right in the thick of managing regional crises such as the recent ouster of Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore, whom he hosted until the ouster leader left for Morocco this week.

He also extended by a year the mandate of the reconciliation commission, while notable progress has been made in reeling in remaining militias, even if concerns remain.

The UN in a ground visit this month strongly backed the progress of the two-year old Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Authority (ADDR) towards reintegrating ex-combatants. Nearly 60% of about 75,000 former fighters have been reintegrated, with thousands of weapons mopped up, according to the government.

The FPI also seems to be warming up to Ouattara’s overtures, although the former ruling party’s suspicions remain that they are meant to induce infighting and leave it too weak to offer a challenge at the ballot. In truth though, the FPI’s options are increasingly limited; it is bogged down with internal squabbles, but ICC judges also confirmed that they would try Gbagbo, dashing hopes of a triumphant return for its figurehead.

Presidential pardons

Ouattara has in recent months issued presidential pardons for several prisoners, and while at least 500 remaining political prisoners remain, many of the FPI’s leaders are out on bail, including head Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who is significantly, also charged along former First Lady Simone Gbagbo with threatening state security.

French President Francois Hollande also visited in July, and reportedly indicated that Paris, a major player in the country, would not necessarily consider an Ouattara victory illegitimate on the basis of the FPI’s non-participation alone. 

Ouattara in September also bagged the backing of Konan Bedie, a big political coup despite internal PDCI murmurs of disapproval over the deal that is said to be premised on return political support in the future.

Bedi’s party was instrumental in getting Ouattara past Gbagbo in the 2010 run-off election that triggered the conflict. 

A national census has also since been completed, while in August 17 commissioners of the new Ivorian Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) were sworn in, with the crucial participation of the opposition, ending months of tension over its composition.

AfDB and UN thumbs up

The UN in July welcomed the release of political prisoners and the return of seized property to Gbagbo allies, terming it a “significant step toward national reconciliation” while subsequently noting progress in key reform areas. It has also been whittling down its staff in the country.   

Hollande, in his July visit, said the country now “inspires confidence”. In a sign of this, the African Development Bank (AfDB) undertook its much-delayed return to its former seat after an 11-year absence, while investors are also stumping up billions of dollars in opportunities, convinced of Ouattara’s control of the country, even if next year’s election remains much-watched.  

Macroeconomic indicators also remain strong for the country, with Gross Domestic Product  (GDP) growing 8.6% last year, and expected to remain above 8% this year, while the country also sold $750 million worth of eurobonds in July this year, an auction that was several times oversubscribed, further illustrating the confidence of international capital markets in the country’s recovery path.

The latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance ranked it the most improved in safety and the rule of law in the last five years, and 40th of 52 countries, climbing four places from last year, while Ease of Doing Business ranked it 147th, a climb of 11 places on last year. (See: The latest Mo Ibrahim governance index: Villains, winners and other things you probably didn’t notice)

Danger still lurks

But despite these brisk gains over the last year challenges remain. Former First Lady Simone Gbagbo and other FPI leaders are set to go on trial in a much-watched case with the ability to raise tensions, while Gbagbo’s ICC trial will also be watched for its influence on the country’s fragile reconciliation.

In a reversal, the FPI and another party, the Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF) in October suspended their participation in the electoral commission, protesting the choice of pro-Ouattara diplomat Youssouf Bakayoko as its chair.

There have also been sporadic attacks blamed on rebels, including on a military camp, while the UN’s Group of Experts of Cote d’ Ivoire in its October mid-term report to the Security Council noted that few rebel leaders had been indicted. 

Further security concerns remain over weapons in circulation and the weakness of border control, while parallel economies based on illegal resource profiting were also noted.

Mercanaries in Liberia and militias in Cote d’Ivoire “remain highly operational”, the experts said, noting that attacks from pro-Gbagbo radicals are seen as “part of a larger plan to destabilise the country”.

A raft of sanctions also remain in place on the country. 

But despite this Ouattara will look back at the year with a measure of satisfaction, and remains the man to beat in next year, an election that will further consolidate the country’s gains and attract more investors, while also calming the nerves of the Francophone West Africa region for which Cote d’Ivoire remains the anchor tenant.

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