“The blood of our brothers, our sisters and our children has flowed again only due to their legitimate quest for freedom and democracy, (…) I would like to pay tribute to the young N’Guessan Koffi Toussaint beheaded in Daoukro, to the young Kissi Morel shot dead in Bonoua, to the Kouamé family, 4 of whom were burned alive in their house in Toumodi, to name just a few of the many victims. Ivorian democrats will not forget their martyrs,” said 86 year-old former President Henri Konan Bédié, President of the historic party dating back to Côte d’Ivoire’s independence, the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire-African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA) in an address to the Ivorian nation on 9 December 2020. But what caused this violence?
When on the 6th of August 78-year-old former President of Côte d’Ivoire Alassane Ouattara decided to run for a third term, after having gone on record five months earlier saying that he would step down since the Ivorian Constitution sets a two term limit, nation-wide non-violent demonstrations erupted calling for him to respect the law and leave office.
Ouattara responded with a crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators and the arrest of many civil rights activists amongst which was the coordinator of the NGO Ivorian Citizen Alternative (Alternative Citoyenne Ivoirienne or ACI) Pulchérie Edith Gbalet, arrested on the 15th of August along with two collaborators, Djehi Bi Cyrille and Gbaou Gedeon, for having called on people to protest peacefully against Ouattara’s third term bid.
What the coalition of over twenty political parties – with the only exception of Ouattara’s ruling party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) -, civil society organizations, trade unions and thousands of protestors were demanding was also upheld by four recent judgements by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR).
Since 2016 the African Court has denounced the balance of power that still favored Ouattara’s RHDP party who has control over key electoral management bodies: “This bias is unable to secure credible elections in 2020”, the African Court ruled, calling for urgent reforms of both the national Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) as well as the local IECs, as in their current functioning and composition they were found to in breach both of the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance, as well as the 2001 Ecowas Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
Ouattara ignored the binding rulings and left the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in April 2020, yet the Court is still mandated until April 2021 and has continued to deliberate on human rights issues concerning Côte d’Ivoire.
On the 18th of August, Amnesty International reported that Ouattara’s police was allowing machete-wielding men to attack protesters. An incident on the 13th of August in Yopougon district of Abidjan, the country’s economic capital, revealed harrowing details of a volatile security situation instigated by unofficial law enforcement agents used by the Ouattara regime to crack down on protestors. A police officer witnessed: “We were shocked and understood that their presence was not coincidental. Someone was apparently informing them of the areas where security forces were intervening. This is a very dangerous step and I am really worried. This reminds me of two past crises where militias were sowing terror among the population.”
On the 25th of August 2020 a US embassy brief urged Alassane Ouattara’s Ivorian security forces to respect and safeguard the rights of all citizens, including to participate in peaceful demonstrations. On the 18th of September, the European Union reiterated the respect for civil liberties, and also pointed to the need to follow up on the deliberations of the African Court so as to guarantee fair and transparent elections.
On the 20th of September, faced with Ouattara’ government’s refusal to open a dialogue and address key points of contention, and after all avenues of legal and institutional action were exhausted, a coalition of parties[i] called for nation-wide civil disobedience.
The elections, boycotted by two of the three accepted Presidential opponents (forty candidates were discarded on dubious legal grounds by the Constitutional Council) were bafflingly approved by French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Questioned on his support by Communist MP Jean-Paul Lecoq at the National Assembly on the 7th of October, Le Drian replied: “There is a democratic process in Côte d’Ivoire. I am not responsible for appreciating the new Constitution. It would be an interference. If President Ouattara wishes to run, it is his free choice.”
In a letter addressed to the African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, former President Thabo Mbeki, a key mediator in the country in 2004 and 2010, expressed his reservations on the African Union deploying representatives to observe the election processes in Côte d’Ivoire without prior serious consideration of the grave matters raised by the Ivorian political opposition.
“Is it possible to have such ‘transparent, free and fair’ elections when a properly constituted African Court, the AfCHPR, has ruled that the exclusion of some candidates must be reversed, and the Government of Côte d’Ivoire has refused to honor this judgement; (…) obviously we must also ask the question – is it possible to have such ‘transparent, free and fair’, and legitimate, elections if one of the candidates, this time the sitting president, is allowed to run contrary to the Constitutional prescripts?” Mbeki wrote.
Independent and Democracy Group representative, Thierry Mariani, questioning the European Parliament on the 26th of October, asked the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to explain why the European Union’s comments on the unrest surrounding this election are so muted.
On the 29th of October in a TV5 Monde interview with journalist Denise Epoté, former president Laurent Gbagbo, acquitted by the International Criminal Court, who had not spoken to any media since his arrest nine years earlier, called for dialogue between Ouattara and the coalition of Ivorian parties so as to avoid an escalation of violence. Gbagbo, a staunch believer that politics without consistently applied principles necessarily degenerates into crude quests for power, warned: “What awaits us is disaster. (…)We must open a dialogue.”
A boycotted ballot and the birth of the CNT
On the 15th of October, the country’s main opposition parties decried Ouattara’s decision to run basically alone against one minor candidate, without addressing the necessary reforms, called for an active boycott of the elections by all legal means possible.
Blockaded roads sprung up all over the country often via large trees placed through them, as a symbolic statement on the part of the Ivorian population that Ouattara’s third term bid was considered unconstitutional and thus illegal.
The presidential election held on the 31st of October, 2020 was boycotted by a large part of the population: the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and the Carter Center published a preliminary report on the 2nd of November titled “Non inclusive Ivorian election is boycotted, leaving country fractured.”
A joint IEOM and Carter Center preliminary report (the final report has still not been published) states: “the mission’s report highlighted concerns that the overall context and process did not allow for a genuinely competitive election.(…) Several candidates ultimately did not contest the election and broad sectors of the Ivorian population did not participate; these issues now threaten the acceptance of the results and the country’s cohesion.”
In 97% of the 273 polling stations visited, the presidents of the local IEC’s were from Ouattara’s ruling party; observers were not allowed to review the Constitutional Council’s legal reasoning for excluding 40 candidates out of 44; an opaque use of campaign funding; a refusal of an external audit of the electoral rolls; in six of the 17 regions, observers noted that the organization of the vote was heavily impacted. At least 1,052 polling stations were never able to operate; the inability to observe any step of the closing, the counting or centralization of results processes due to security reasons, are some of the observer mission remarks.
Images of ballot stuffing circulated on social media, a factor also denounced by the local observer mission Indigo, which also noted votes cast by people not registered on the electoral roll or not having their identity papers.
The only observer mission who said the elections went well was the International Election Observer Mission of Liberals and Democrats (Mission Internationale d’Observation Electorale des liberaux et democrats), headed by a Macedonian-British national Emil Kirjas. The mission was presented in the local press as mandated by Liberal International (LI), a world-wide coalition of liberal and progressive democratic parties. Liberal International’s official website states Ouattara’s political party is amongst its members, a reason sufficient to disqualify any observer mission on the grounds of bias.
The British embassy in Abidjan published an official statement that the head of mission British-Macedonian Emil Kirjas does not represent the British government in any way.
Emil Kirjas, a former secretary general of LI, is a paid consultant of Ouattara’s RHDP party and worked for Ouattara in Abidjan months before the elections. “His mission had no sanction from LI and he was told in advance that he should not pass himself off as LI” Robert Woodthorpe Browne, Vice President of Liberal International’s bureau stated in an e-mail.
LI members did however launch a video message on the 30th of October 2020 in support of Alassane Ouattara’s third term bid, its President Hakima Elhaité called Ouattara “an example for Africa to follow.” Liberal International has not provided comments regarding their support for Ouattara’s illegal third term bid.
On November 2nd, following the successful election boycott, in which only 8% of the population voted, the opposition parties decided not to recognize Ouattara’s election and formed a National Transitional Council (CNT) chaired by Henri Konan Bedié. All political parties, except Laurent Gbagbo’s FPI, joined the CNT.
The CNT promised to undertake the necessary reforms for the organization of a fair, transparent and inclusive presidential election as outlined by the African Court rulings, set up a transitional government and the convening of a nation-wide meeting for national reconciliation. It also demanded the return of the over 200,000 refugees in exile since 2011, as well as the liberation of all political prisoners.
On the 3rd of November as PDCI 24 TV journalist Yao Alex Hallane Clément was at Henri Konan Bédié’s house to cover the CNT’s press conference, the house was raided by the police and about 20 people were arrested, amongst which politicians Maurice Kakou Guikahué, Pierre Narcisse N’dri Kouadio, Georges Philippe Ezaley, Seri Bi N’Guessan, Aminata N’diaye and lawyers Jean-Chrysostome Blessy and Suy Bi Gohore Emile, while Bédié was placed under a de facto house arrest, with no one allowed in or out. Yao broadcast the raid on Facebook before he was also arrested.
In a November 4th press release the European Left Africa Working Group called for a turnabout in Europe’s diplomacy: “The European Union’s unwavering support for the Ivorian regime discredits its words and its actions throughout Africa. (….) The European Left supports all those who work for a perspective of peace and the reconstruction of democracy in Côte d’Ivoire and demands that the European Union cease being complicit in the dictatorial regime which cracks down on Côte d’Ivoire.”
After a brief meeting between Bédié and Ouattara on the 11th of November, the dialogue was suspended by Bédié who demanded the release of all those arrested as a prerequisite for the resumption of a dialogue.
As the civil disobedience continued other civilian victims fell. Henrie Konan Bédié declared the 21 of November a national mourning day for the many victims of the peaceful demonstrations calling for Ouattara to step down.
Senator Pierre Laurent, member of the Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Committee wrote an open letter to the French Foreign Minister Yves LeDrian “Overcoming Côte d’Ivoire’s democratic void” underlining the democratic shortcomings the unlawful support of Ouattara’s third term bid entails; Democratic Movement (MoDem) MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee Bruno Fuchs expressed his concerns; Unsubmissive France (France Insoumise) MP Michel Larive in a 16 November 2020 press brief warned the French government: “No crisis can be resolved by means of an unconstitutional takeover of force and without the consent of the people concerned.”
During a French National Assembly session on the 25 November, Union of Democrats and Independents MP, Frédérique Dumas, also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, questioned Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s support of Ouattara’s unconstitutional candidacy. Le Drian invoked the sudden death of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly to validate this violation of the Ivorian Constitution. However, nowhere in the Ivorian Constitution is it enshrined that a sitting president has the right to violate the constitutional term limit if a presidential candidate dies.
Former prime minister and spokesperson for the CNT, Affi N’Guessan, was kidnaped on the night of November 6th by Ouattara’s death squads. His lawyer Dagbo Godé, in a video interview on the 28th of November for Le Cri d’Abidjan related how his client was detained incommunicado, even his lawyers could not have access to him. A few days after the kidnapping, rumors began circulating on social media that he had been assassinated until a video was produced by the Ivorian authorities where N’Guessan, repeating with difficulty what his jailors ordered him to say on camera, announced he was alive and well. Commenting on the Ivorian prosecutor Adou Richard’s actions, Godé underlines: “there is no public prosecutor in this country. The opposition parties did not violate the law (…) Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi have used this strategy.” On the 2nd of December Affi N’Guessan was evacuated urgently to a hospital for medical treatment, before being returned to an undisclosed prison.
In a 2 December Human Rights Watch report Jim Wormington, senior Africa researcher, criticized the targeting of opposition members through flawed judicial processes.
The worrying human rights situation and the indifference of the Ivorian judicial system in the face of the kidnappings, night raids in villages were dozens of young people are arrested, and documented crimes of government death squads has prompted two Zouglou singers, known as Yodé and Siro, to write a song questioning the public prosecutor Richard Adou’s actions. The latter had them arrested.
As two dozen lawyers came to support them on the 3rd of December at the Abidjan Court of First Instance, Yodé and Siro’s trial reached its epilogue after two days of police custody; accused of contempt of the public prosecutor they were condemned to a 12-month suspended prison sentence and released on bail each with a 7,500 Euro fine.
“In the realm of music, there is no note called courtesy. Adou Richard, in the subconscious of the population, represents the judiciary. That’s why, we called him out. We only relay what the people say and think. This is our role as Zouglou artists. I didn’t get much schooling, but I know the prosecutor has a public job. The law authorizes me as an Ivorian to criticize all those who exercise a public function,” Siro said during the trial hearing.[ii]
There is a complaint officially recognized by the International Criminal Court in 2016 for genocide and crimes against humanity against Alassane Ouattara and his Forces Nouvelles militia from 2002 to 2012 with over 5,000 filed individual victim testimonies, yet the ICC has not acted but for one and a half years has kept an appeal open to the no case to answer ruling against Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé.
Since the 6th of August 2020 at least 83 people have lost their lives, over 200 have been seriously injured and hundreds arrested.
Bédié calls for a non-recognition of Ouattara’s presidency and a national dialogue to replace the CNT as a way out of the violence that is exasperating the country’s population. Until now, the people of Côte d’Ivoire have been abandoned in their noble struggle for democracy, betrayed by a dereliction of duty on the part of the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union[iii] and the United Nations.
[i] The coalition of political parties, regrouping 90% of the political expressions in the country, calling for a postponement of the 31 October elections and a national dialogue are regrouped around two platforms: Henri Konan Bédié’s PDCI party and its platform
the Coalition for Reconciliation, Democracy and Peace (La Coalition pour la Réconciliation, la Démocratie et la Paix or CRDP) – with includes numerous parties amongst which the Union for democracy and peace in Côte d’Ivoire (UDPCI), Generations and peoples of solidarity (GPS), Freedom for democracy (LIDER), Affi N’Guessan’s FPI – and the Together for Democracy and Sovereignty (EDS) platform which includes the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), the Pan-African Congress for Justice and Peoples Equality (COJEP) amongst others. Various trade unions and civil society leaders also joined the call for a national dialogue.
[ii] Siro cited in Le Verdict Honteux pour la justice, Le Dossier d’Aujourd’hui, 4 December 2020.
[iii] The European Union sent a small Election Expert Mission (EEM) rather than an Election Observation Mission (EOM) to the 31 October 2020 elections has not made public its mission report which it states in an e-mail is for “internal use only.” At the time of writing the EU has not yet responded to the query if it officially recognizes the 31 of October elections.
Nicoletta Fagiolo is an Italian-German filmmaker who works for national and international TV channels writing and producing reportages and documentaries. She is also a founding member of the NGO Mobilization and Communication for the Defense of the Ivorian Constitution (MCDCI).
Cover Photo: Destruction of ballots as part of a civil disobedience protest against the electoral process – Côte d’Ivoire, 31 October 2020.
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