Côte d'Ivoire: Progress, Regress, and the Constant Threat of Violent Turmoil

The country has made fragile, too-easily-reversible advances since its descent into chaos nearly two years ago.

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Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara waves from his vehicle as he greets residents during a visit to Man, in western Ivory Coast, on April 21st, 2012. (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

"I have come to seek your advice and your blessing." So said the Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, as he met Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City on Friday. Ouattara could do with some counsel. On Wednesday, he dissolved his government, apparently placing Côte d'Ivoire's precarious political stability in jeopardy. Meanwhile, yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report accusing his army of abuses of power, including the arbitrary arrest and torture of civilians.

The dissolution of the government stems from a proposed change to the country's marriage law, which treats the man as the head of household. Ouattara's RDR party wants to amend the law to grant wives equal rights to their husbands. The amendment was sent to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday where members of the PDCI, the second-largest party in the coalition government, opposed it. Unimpressed, Ouattara dissolved the government later that day citing, as an RDR spokesperson carefully phrased it, a "problem of solidarity within the alliance."

The president is impatient to build on the progress the country has made in the 18 months since he took control. He came to power following a violent stand-off as former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept that he lost the presidential election toward the end of 2010. During the four month post-electoral crisis, more than 3,000 people were killed and over a million people displaced. Thanks in part to a French military intervention, Ouattara was finally installed as president in April 2011, and Gbagbo was handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The country's worsening security situation, which has deteriorated badly since August, will be much more difficult to resolve.

With a stable government in control, security has improved and most of those displaced by the post-election violence have returned to their homes. Meanwhile, the economic recovery has been remarkable. After a decade of neglect, the dilapidated transport and energy infrastructure are being repaired and enhanced. Roads are being built and access to electricity is being extended. International allies have given their financial backing to Ouattara and debt relief has cut the country's debt to less than half the level it was at in 2010.

Ouattara, a former IMF economist, has pushed through long-overdue reforms, improving the business environment and making the country more attractive to international investors. Multinationals, previously deterred by political instability, are eager to get involved and a string of multi-million dollar deals were announced in the first half of 2012. The agriculture sector is booming; the country supplies 40 percent of the world's cocoa, and other soft commodities are growing strongly. Export earnings from coffee, palm oil, and cashew nuts are all up. As a result, the economy will grow at a rapid 8 percent this year, and the outlook is potentially even rosier. Companies are keen to do more agro-processing in Côte d'Ivoire, which offers a good base to export from, as well as strong local demand from its 20 million-strong population. This would create more jobs by adding value to products, rather than exporting raw commodities.

The events of the past week threaten to undermine all of this economic progress. The split between the RDR and the PDCI was ostensibly about the marriage law, but the rift runs deeper. They have not been comfortable allies since the coalition was formed in April and have had several significant disagreements. Yet despite dissolving the government after only six months, Ouattara is in a strong position. The RDR party won an outright majority in the legislative election in December, taking 54 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. He decided to form a coalition with the PDCI, which took 34 percent of the seats, partly as a reward for their support for him in the presidential election, but also because he wanted to broaden his base of support. He could cut the PDCI loose and still enjoy a majority in the National Assembly.

The Democracy Report

He seems unlikely to do so. For all the economic progress, the country is still fractured. Some 46 percent of the electorate did not vote for Ouattara in the presidential poll and they feel marginalized. The FPI, the party formerly headed by Gbagbo, boycotted the legislative election, depriving its supporters of political representation. Furthermore, even though both sides committed atrocities during the post-electoral crisis, the impression is that only one side is being punished. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate the atrocities has charged more than 100 people linked to Gbagbo but not a single ally of Ouattara. Some are calling it victor's justice.

Ouattara appears to think that his best chance of winning over those Ivorians that didn't vote for him is by putting in place policies that speed up economic development, benefiting his supporters and non-supporters alike. He may be right, but in such a charged atmosphere he can ill afford to lose the political cushion provided by the PDCI and he certainly does not want them throwing mud from the opposition benches. Ouattara will probably renew the coalition, and talks have been opened with that intent. He will need to offer concessions but he may also take the opportunity to replace some of the more lethargic ministers with the more able technocrats that he prefers to work with.

The country's worsening security situation, which has deteriorated badly since August, will be much more difficult to resolve. The government has blamed a surge in violence on militants loyal to Gbagbo launching raids from bases in neighbouring Ghana and Liberia. Dozens of people have been killed and large caches of weapons have been stolen in attacks on military bases. The response from the state has been brutal and unforgiving; hundreds of people have been arrested and mistreated. The HRW report, released yesterday, detailed the scale of the abuse:

"... the state response to the threat, undertaken primarily by the military, has been marked by widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions, detention-related abuses including torture, and criminal behavior against the civilian population."

Gbagbo's allies have been able to take advantage of Ouattara's struggle to demobilize and reintegrate former government, rebel, and militia forces. Gbagbo had installed many of his supporters in leading positions in the army, and overcoming the divisions within the military while integrating the rebel groups that supported Ouattara is proving tricky. The military, now purged of Gbagbo supporters, is loyal to Ouattara but ineffective. Foreign allies will use the HRW report to put pressure on Ouattara to bring his troops into line, but in doing so he could drive a wedge between himself and some of his supporters. Already, he is unable to control many of the informal rebel military forces that helped him come to power. It is proving extremely difficult to disarm the tens of thousands of militia members on both sides. The longer the demobilization process, the greater the risk that a surge in violence could escalate into a nationwide problem. A return to all-out civil conflict seems unlikely, but a deteriorating security situation would frighten investors and imperil economic development.

The economic rewards of stability in Côte d'Ivoire are already apparent -- but the path to prosperity is strewn with political obstacles. If the violence worsens, all the gains of the past 18 months could be wiped out. Less than two years into the job, Alassane Ouattara is facing his biggest test yet.

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Joseph Lake is a New York-based member of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Sub-Saharan Africa team.

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