OpEd: Here’s why the Ivory Coast is shifting alliances

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By Francois Conradie, Head of Research at NKC African Economics

On August 9, Henri Konan Bedie’s Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) formally announced that it had rejected the idea of joining the Houphoetist Rally for Democracy and Progress (RHDP): a big-tent party that President Alassane Ouattara has formed to replace a looser coalition of the same name and with which to contest upcoming regional and municipal elections on October 13 and the crucial presidential election in 2020.

The statement was issued the day after a meeting between Mr Bédié and Mr Ouattara at the president’s residence. In it, the PDCI left the door open to alliances with other parties. It read, in part: “[the PDCI] reserves the right to promote a platform of collaboration with Ivorians who share its vision of a reconciled Ivory Coast which is concerned with the rights, freedoms and well-being of its population”.

In practice, the only Ivorians with which a political alliance would have any substance are those of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).

The FPI is split in two, between a harder wing which recently re-elected former President Laurent Gbagbo as its chairman and a more moderate wing under Pascal Affi N’Guessan. On Friday Mr Bédié received Mr Affi N’Guessan at his Abidjan home.

Mr Bédié said afterwards that “nothing prevents that… the PDCI and FPI find themselves together,” while Mr Affi N’Guessan said that the FPI “reaffirms our availability to take part in the creation of a new platform.” Even a spokesman for the Gbagbo wing of the FPI, César Etou, told reporters that his organisation was “not closed to a rapprochement with the PDCI”.

These are remarkable words, given the history of the parties. The PDCI is the former sole party of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (president from 1960 to 1993) and Mr Bédié (president from 1993 to 1999) under which the FPI was banned and Mr Gbagbo jailed. But relations between Mr Bédié and Mr Ouattara are frosty and getting frostier.

We had been expecting Mr Bédié to definitively reject the RHDP idea since June, when the PDCI’s political office rejected the unified party idea. That development followed an interview Mr Ouattara gave to Jeune Afrique earlier in that month in which he said that he had “never promised [Mr Bédié] anything”. We believe that he did, in fact, promise Mr Bédié in 2015 that his Rally for the Republicans (RDR) would support someone from the PDCI in the 2020 election if the PDCI backed him in his second run in 2015.

The betrayal of that promise stung and made it impossible for Mr Bédié to swallow his pride and fold his party into the RHDP.

On August 6, two days before he met Mr Bédié, Mr Ouattara announced the pardon of 800 people jailed for various offences. The two most high-profile of these are Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady who had been jailed for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the 2011 post-election conflict that opposed Mr Gbagbo and Mr Ouattara, and Kamagate Souleymane, a former comzone or zone commander during that conflict who had been jailed after a cache of military-grade weapons was discovered at his house.

Ms Gbagbo, since her release, has been feted in FPI circles in Abidjan. As for Mr Souleymane, he is close to National Assembly Speaker Guillaume Soro – another key Ouattara ally during the 2011 conflict – and it may be that his release is part of negotiations between the president and Mr Soro about support going forward.

Now Mr Ouattara will be seeking to coax PDCI members over to his RHDP, while the PDCI and FPI leaders will seek to find common ground. Announcements of new partnerships will come thick and fast as the October elections approach, and we expect that questions of ethnicity will re-emerge as Mr Ouattara’s political opponents seek to make his Burkinabe heritage an issue (as it was when Mr Bédié barred him from running in the 1995 presidential race for not being Ivorian enough).

Increased volatility and more opposition energy in the next two years is expected, but the RHDP should continue to dominate the landscape and its candidate (likely Mr Ouattara himself) should be the favourite in 2020. A wildcard is Mr Gbagbo, whose trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is going nowhere. If he is released, the picture will become messier still.