Has President Alassane Ouattara Got What It Takes? The Many Challenges Facing Côte d’Ivoire’s New Leader


July 21, 2011 05:14 EDT

Veronique Tadjo takes a look at the political and economic situation facing Côte d’Ivoire president Ouattara after he wins a much disputed election.

The question foremost on the minds of many Ivoirians is whether Alassane Ouattara is the new leader that they have been waiting for.

Côte d’Ivoire has been languishing for more than a decade since a successful coup d’état in 1999. Two years later, there was a rebellion in the north that divided the country and led to turmoil since. Despite more than 10 years of political instability, the country reached its lowest point during the latest presidential election, which had been designed to end its downward spiral.

During the first round, the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, and Ouattara garnered 38 and 32 percent of the vote respectively. However, during the second run Ouattara took the lead after he secured the support of former president, Henri Konan Bédié, who had come third in the first round, with 25 percent of the vote. On 2 December 2010, the Election Commission declared him the winner with 54 percent of the vote, with Gbagbo trailing closely with 46 percent.

This was the beginning of the end. Within days, the Constitutional Council overturned the result, claiming that there had been serious irregularities in the northern part of the country. After the results were invalidated in 7 polling stations, a new count was given. The Council announced that Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, had been re-elected with 51% of the votes. This led to a worldwide uproar. The United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), Washington, Paris and London, later followed by the African Union (AU), all recognized Ouattara’s victory.

Aseries of economic, financial and diplomatic sanctions meant to force Gbagbo to relinquish power and accept his defeat at the polls were initiated. Although severely weakened, he continued to resist. A four-month power struggle erupted into an armed conflict between the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) loyal to Gbagbo, backed by elite units and the Republican Guard on one side, and the ex-rebel soldiers, the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), fighting for Ouattara on the other. The latter were heavily reinforced by French troops who were there under a UN mandate.

In a dramatic finale, Gbagbo and his influential wife Simone were arrested at the presidential residence, where they had taken refuge in the basement with their retinue after a rocket bombardment by the French military. The deposed president and his wife were immediately taken to the Golf Hotel, which had become the U.N.-protected headquarters of Ouattara and his government during the long post-election stand-off. Later the Gbagbos were moved to the North where they are still being held in separate locations.

At last, on May 5, Côte d’Ivoire’s top court confirmed Ouattara as the rightful winner of the election. On May 21, he was inaugurated in an imposing ceremony in Yamoussoukro which, symbolically at least, is the political capital. It is also the birth place of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president who for three decades steered his country into becoming one of the most prosperous economies in West Africa. Several African heads of state attended the celebration but the star attraction was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who received a warm welcome in gratitude for France’s decisive military intervention.

Alassane Ouattara is 69 years old, tall and austere in appearance. He hails from the Muslim North of the country and has a father from Burkina Faso and a wife from France. He was called in from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to serve as Houphouët-Boigny’s prime minister in the early 90s as recession hit Côte d’Ivoire. He was prevented from running for president in the 2000 elections after the then military leader, General Robert Gueï, changed the constitution to exclude candidates whose parents were not both Ivorians. This was later overturned but was too late to prevent destructive ethnic divisions.

Indeed, a deep crisis of identity is at the heart of the Ivorian problem. The concept of “Ivoirité”, loosely translated as ‘Ivoirianness” and begs the question of what makes one Ivoirian This idea has been used by successive governments from Bédié to Gbagbo and Gueï to disenfranchise those perceived to be non-natives. Because of their strong cultural links with countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea, people from the North have been made to feel increasingly alienated.

Ouattara’s priorities are security and economic recovery

On the economic front, France and the US are pledging hundreds of millions of euros and dollars to the country. The IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, among others, are also offering substantial financial aid. It seems that everything needs to be rebuilt. Countrywide, many administrative buildings have been damaged and basic infrastructure must be restored. Abidjan- the stronghold of Gbagbo’s supporters – has been the scene of fierce battles. 

Yet on the ground, a sense of normality appears to be creeping back into formerly affluent quarters like the Plateau, Marcory and Cocody. Ivorians are happy to see traffic jams again. Banks have reopened and civil servants are receiving their salaries but many employees are still unaccounted for. It is estimated that 3,000 people died during the post-election conflict and that several hundred thousand are still displaced internally and in neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, Ouattara’s government is seeking ways to attract foreign investment to numerous sectors including offshore oil exploration, agriculture and private business. There are also some very sizeable reconstruction projects. French business looks set to occupy prime position. It is too early to say where the country is heading in terms of reconstruction and economic recovery. It will take months, if not years, before deep structural changes can take place. In the meantime, Ouattara must articulate his ‘Marshall plan.’

On the security front things are even harder

Security in Abidjan and in the rest of the country has improved since the end of the conflict. However, a report on Côte d’Ivoire presented by a top U.N. investigative team on June 15 expressed concern over acts of violence allegedly carried out by members of the FRCI. Their indiscipline, lack of clear command structures and the absence of any real career prospects present serious problems. Ironically, Ouattara’s own army could become his Achilles’ heel. 

It is therefore urgent for Ouattara and Guillaume Soro, his prime minister and ex-rebel leader, to take measures to control rogue elements of the FRCI. This is the only way to establish a true professional and national army composed of FRCI as well as FDS soldiers.

These are tangible steps. What is much more delicate is the healing of hidden wounds. The job of the truth and reconciliation commission set up by Ouattara will be to dispense justice to all sides and to start the process of reconciliation between northerners and southerners. This is a big challenge as impartial justice- the only way to avoid a culture of impunity- may force Ouattara to act against those who have fought on his side but who have committed human rights abuses. What to do with Gabgbo is also a delicate question. How can justice be carried out publicly without assuming the look of a witch hunt? How can trust in the ability of Ivoirians to live peacefully together again be rebuilt?

What is needed most of all, perhaps, is not so much a truth and reconciliation commission, but the collective realization that everybody to a larger or lesser extent bears a responsibility in the Ivoirian disaster. It is an internal process of self-questioning that is most needed.

If Ouattara wants Ivoirians to believe that he is the leader they have been waiting for, he and his government will have to retain the moral high ground that they have occupied throughout the post-electoral crisis. Moreover, in the present situation, power is completely in the hands of the executive. Thus, the existing weak civil society, absence of a real opposition and a Parliament that is not functioning properly, make for a potentially dangerous imbalance that must be addressed.

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