go to top
Alassane Ouattara following his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, in Paris Cote d’Ivoire’s president, Alassane Ouattara, following his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, France, Feb. 15, 2019 (SIPA photo via AP Images).

Is Cote d’Ivoire Heading Toward Another Crisis?

Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019

As Cote d’Ivoire prepares for elections next year, the peace and progress of the past eight years could be at risk. Despite an attempt at security sector reforms, the same failures of governance that caused months of post-election violence in 2010, just three years after the end of the Ivorian civil war, could lead to another crisis in 2020.

Just three years after the end of its civil war in 2007, Cote d’Ivoire fell back into conflict when President Laurent Gbagbo rejected the internationally recognized electoral victory of his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, and refused to cede power. Within a span of five months, more than 3,000 people were killed and nearly 1 million more displaced as the pro-Gbagbo Armed Forces of the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire fought the pro-Ouattara New Forces for control of the country. Ouattara eventually won out in April 2011, and Gbagbo was arrested. Seven months later, Gbagbo was turned over to the International Criminal Court and flown to The Hague to face charges of war crimes.

[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]

Since then, Cote d’Ivoire has stabilized, maintaining peace and a remarkable economic recovery, with an average annual growth rate of nearly 9 percent. Yet as the country prepares for a new round of elections next year, set for October 2020, the peace and progress of the past eight years could be at risk. The same failures of governance and reform that caused the first Ivorian election crisis could lead to a second one.

The unrest in 2010 and early 2011 was triggered by Gbagbo’s actions, but it escalated because of a lack of progress in security sector reforms, most of all the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups into the Ivorian military. Despite the fact that all the relevant parties from the civil war agreed to these measures in the 2007 peace agreement that was struck in neighboring Burkina Faso, few of them were actually enacted across Cote d’Ivoire. Although the war ended, the underlying map of the conflict remained in place. While the national government retained control over the south of the country, pro-Gbagbo militias controlled the west, and Ouattara’s New Forces held the north, relying on the illicit economic structures established during the civil war to support their presence.

International observers of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process steadily warned of a major gap between public statements of progress and actual security sector reforms. In contrast to claims by the government that it had finished disarming and dismantling all militias in the west of the country, the actual weapons collected by United Nations peacekeepers represented only a fraction of the arms analysts knew to exist in Cote d’Ivoire. After the elections of 2010, both Gbagbo and Ouattara were able to quickly mobilize their forces, transforming a political crisis into a military confrontation.

As president, Ouattara prioritized seeing these security sector reforms through, creating a Security Sector Reform Working Group and establishing several government agencies to oversee the demobilization of militias and their reintegration into the formal ranks of the military. Championed by the international community, Ouattara’s government received millions of dollars in funding from donor countries and multilateral organizations to support his agenda. Ouattara was reelected in 2015, but essentially ran unopposed.

Yet progress, where it has occurred, has been slow. Although the government has officially demobilized nearly 70,000 ex-combatants, including soldiers from both sides as well as militia members, it is unclear to what extent they have reintegrated into society and whether they would be susceptible to take up arms again. Despite the promises by the Ouattara government to transform and unify the security sector, Cote d’Ivoire’s military remains highly politicized. Major divisions persist between troops, with party loyalties often coming before loyalty to the state.

The potential for a second presidential contest between Bedie, Ouattara and Gbagbo threatens to renew latent ethnic tensions across Cote d’Ivoire.

In January 2017, dissatisfied soldiers mutinied, blockading the northern city of Bouake and storming the Ministry of Defense in the capital, Abidjan. They took control of seven cities across the country and held them for two days to demand greater compensation. Five months later, the same troops staged a second mutiny when the government failed to deliver the agreed upon payments quickly enough. Joined by some demobilized troops, the mutineers raided a stock of weapons collected in 2012 during the disarmament. The majority of the mutineers were former troops from Ouattara’s New Forces who were rebelling against the president they helped bring to power. A former Ivorian security official I interviewed in Cote d’Ivoire in June concluded that the scale of these mutinies—and the ease with which soldiers obtained weapons and armed themselves—revealed the government’s failure to professionalize the army and deliver on its promises of disarmament.

Political dynamics are adding to fears of renewed unrest ahead of next year’s election. Last year, the political alliance that supported Ouattara dissolved. Since 2005, the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire, led by Henri Konan Bedie, and Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans, had formed a strong political bloc that ultimately helped Ouattara win the presidency in 2010 and 2015. But in September 2018, Bedie announced that he would be withdrawing his party from the coalition, splitting the vote for municipal elections in 2018 and raising the possibility that he would enter the field as a presidential challenger to Ouattara in 2020.

Then, Gbagbo returned to national politics earlier this year after being acquitted by the International Criminal Court in January. Gbagbo is again the head of the Ivorian Popular Front, the political party he led during his presidency, increasing speculation that he will enter the race himself. Ouattara originally disavowed a third term, but with the potential for bids by Bedie and Gbago, he changed course, announcing earlier this year that he would delay his decision about whether to run for president until the beginning of 2020. While none of the candidates have officially announced their campaigns, it seems increasingly likely that all three will run, presenting voters with the same choice they faced in 2010.

The potential for a second presidential contest between Bedie, Ouattara and Gbagbo threatens to renew latent ethnic tensions across the country. Interviews with Ivorian security experts this summer revealed widespread fears about the coming elections. An official involved in the post-conflict transition stressed that this is the first real test for peace. Unlike the elections of 2015, in which Ouattara faced little opposition, there is certain to be fierce competition between candidates, which will expose all the cracks in the election infrastructure and test the political independence of the state’s institutions. With the specter of renewed election violence, civil society leaders have started to make contingency plans for the protection and evacuation of people who could be targeted.

Although the government has promised to ensure the security of the 2020 vote, the memory of the 2017 mutinies casts doubt on the government’s ability to control rank-and-file soldiers in the event of a contested election. With party loyalties within the army stronger than loyalty to the state, and military professionalism low while politicization within the barracks is high, the government may have little power to stop its troops from rallying behind their preferred candidate.

Renewed election violence in one of the largest economies in West Africa would not only unravel years of impressive economic growth; it could threaten the economic development and stability of the region. While another eruption of civil conflict in Cote d’Ivoire is far from certain, there are troubling similarities between the upcoming vote and the fraught elections of 2010.

Elise Roberts is a doctoral candidate in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]

What are your thoughts on Cote d'Ivoire's security sector reforms? We would like to hear them. Scroll down to comment on this article.