Ouattara III

I call on those who called for civil disobedience, which led to the loss of life, to stop . . . These are criminal acts and we hope that all this can stop, so that after the election this country may continue on its course of progress, which it has enjoyed over the last few years.

Thus did President Alassane Ouattara respond to the violence that erupted in Côte d’Ivoire in the weeks leading up to the 31 October presidential election, leaving over 85 people dead. Yet it was Ouattara’s unlawful decision to run for a third term that had sparked the chaos. The 2000 Constitution allows for only two terms of five years each, but the incumbent argued that a series of constitutional amendments passed in 2016 had ‘reset his term count to zero’. The opposition was not impressed by such semantics and urged their followers to boycott the vote, which was subsequently marred by ‘intimidation, violence and electoral malpractice’, according to an advocacy group. Ouattara went on to win by 94 per cent with a turnout of just over half the electorate.  

With these actions, the president has followed a similar path to his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to acknowledge Ouattara’s victory in the 2010 election triggered a five-month civil war which left 3,000 dead. Unsurprisingly, Ouattara is fearful that recent history will repeat itself. An official source briefed that he was ‘hurt and devastated’ by the wave of unrest. The self-styled ‘father’ of this West African nation attributes the discontent to ‘young people high on drugs and weaponised by the opposition’, as one of his aides put it during an emergency post-election meeting. Ouattara has reportedly expressed disappointment at his party’s ‘failures in the area of training young activists, in spite of all the efforts undertaken over the past few years’, and vowed that he would ‘[hold] officials to account’, whatever that means. Côte d’Ivoire, no less than all the other countries in the region, suffers from a surfeit of youths with little to do and even less to hope for. It isn’t difficult to incite them to violence.

The pity of it is that this 78-year-old former IMF Deputy Managing Director – with a reputation for hard work, transparency and good governance – was supposed to be different. When I met him in Paris at the turn of the millennium he was in the company of George Soros’s staff, just as the Open Society Initiative was extending significant support to the entrenchment of pluralism in the continent following decades of dictatorships enabled by the Cold War. Urbane and softly spoken, he had previously been appointed prime minister (with the IMF’s encouragement) under the ageing Houphouet-Boigny, and attempted to take over when the latter died in 1993. This ambition was thwarted by Henri Konan Bédié, president of the national assembly, who was the rightful successor as provided by the constitution. Ouattara tried again in 1995 but was prevented by an electoral code that barred anyone with a foreign parent from assuming the presidency – his father hailed from a Muslim ruling family in neighbouring Burkina Faso, which made him suspect in the eyes of Christian southerners like Bédié. But by 1999, he was identifying himself as one of the potential leaders of what many hoped would be a resurgent Africa. As he wrote in an IMF Commentary that year, ‘An African renaissance is unfolding before our eyes. Most countries, through most of their independence years, have been ruled by autocratic leaders; autocratic because, whether enlightened or not, they stood above the law.’ Now he has joined the ranks of these autocrats, tarnishing a well-regarded premiership which had seen the economy grow by a respectable 8 per cent per annum and the 2015 election return a decisive result in his favour.

International criticism of Ouattara’s stolen election has been muted; but a report by Human Rights Watch revealed widespread violence perpetrated in opposition strongholds by the security forces in league with local mercenaries. According to one eyewitness:

I saw a group coming into the neighbourhood in two Gbakas [minivans], blue taxis, and scooters . . . They were armed with machetes, knives, and guns. I went out with what I could to defend my village. The neighbourhood youth started throwing stones, and there were so many of us that they fled. One of the government supporters couldn’t escape in time, and he was beaten to death by our young people.

In the town of Toumodi the attack lasted for hours, yet no police officer intervened.

As expected, the African Union claimed that the vote had ‘proceeded in a generally satisfactory manner’, but that was par for the course as leaders in the continent tried to pave the way for similar power-grabs. Although the European Union expressed ‘deep concerns about the tensions, provocations and incitement to hatred that have prevailed and continue to persist in the country around this election’, Emmanuel Macron remained silent. ‘France does not have to give lessons’, he remarked when asked why Ouattara’s case should be considered different from that of President Alpha Condé in neighbouring Guinea. The latter ‘organised a referendum and a change in the constitution just to keep himself in power’, said Macron. ‘That’s why I haven’t yet sent him a congratulatory letter.’ But there are obvious reasons for Macron’s double-standards. As both leaders know, Macron needs Ouattara in place to perform his own sleight of hand: guaranteeing French control of the currency – not only in Côte d’Ivoire, but in six other former colonies in the region.  

After winning independence six decades ago, all the former colonies were obliged to continue with the CFA franc introduced in the aftermath of the Second World War. As French Prime Minister Michel Debré said at the time, ‘We grant independence on the condition that the independent state endeavours to respect the cooperation agreements . . . The one does not go without the other.’ This deal had four main pillars: a fixed exchange rate with the French franc (subsequently the euro); a French guarantee of its unlimited convertibility; a requirement to deposit 50 per cent of the respective country’s foreign exchange reserves in a special French Treasury ‘operating account’; and the principle of free capital transfer within the franc zone. In reality, this meant that France was able to pay its imports from franc zone countries in its own currency, thereby saving on foreign currency. It also allowed France to keep up its own exchange rate in an otherwise dollar-denominated world. French companies operating in the zone benefitted from large and stable outlets for trade, along with ‘a guaranteed freedom to repatriate their revenue and capitals without any foreign exchange risk’, given that France decided the zone’s exchange and monetary policy. The French economy as a whole benefitted from a trade surplus which provided it with a ‘far from negligible amount of exchange reserves which have sometimes been used to pay for France’s debts’, as Ndongo Samba Sylla writes in Jacobin. For African leaders specifically, the arrangement has proved ‘a mechanism to facilitate the transfer of financial resources, no matter how they were acquired’. If worst came to worst, they were guaranteed ‘the backing of the French government against political dissidents and their own people in times of trouble’. 

Ouattara has long been a staunch defender of the CFA franc, once claiming that the matter was best left to the experts (of which he, an economist, was presumably one). But the persistence of this colonial currency has long been seen as a humiliation by activists and intellectuals who want independence to mean just that. Sékou Tourè of Guinea was the only leader to opt out of the arrangement on the grounds that ‘we prefer poverty in liberty than riches in slavery’, and was promptly punished for his temerity: departing French civil servants destroyed everything in their wake, and the secret service flooded the country with fake banknotes.

As late as 2017 Macron insisted that the CFA franc was a ‘non-issue’, yet he did an about-turn in December last year, when he and Ouattara appeared in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital, and unexpectedly announced that it would be replaced by a new currency called the Eco. Macron, who prides himself on being the first French president born in the post-colonial era, claimed that he would ‘engage France in a historic and ambitious reform of the cooperation between the West African economic and monetary union, and our country’. ‘We are taking a big step to write a new page in our relationship with Africa.’ Ouattara, for his part, was less high-minded: ‘Our countries are primarily agricultural and we trade mostly with the EU. Our currency needs to be in line with our foreign trade. We decided to continue to peg our currency to the euro because it’s in our interest to do so.’

In one sense, the currency change is merely symbolic, and will make little difference to the fifteen countries that make up the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). However, ‘Eco’ had been floated as the name of a proposed common currency for the entire region at a meeting in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, just six months earlier. So when Ouattara and Macron made their sudden announcement in Abidjan, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, expressed his ‘uneasy feeling’ at being frozen out of their deliberations – and at the interference of the French President in what was previously a regional debate. ‘It’s a matter of concern,’ he tweeted, ‘that a people with whom we wish to go into a union are taking major steps without trusting us for discussion’ (although it ought to be said that the same Buhari had been lukewarm about the single currency at that same June meeting, counselling patience over a hasty roll-out). Ouattara, for his part, was clearly uninterested in the wider project of a single currency to facilitate trade within the region, unless France underpinned it.

For Nigeria, with half the Ecowas population and over two-thirds of its GDP, monetary union has been a long-term goal. Indeed, Ecowas was its brainchild back in the 1970s. Without the barrier of a foreign currency, the country could easily dominate Francophonie to the exclusion of France itself. The former colonial power has therefore seen Nigeria as a threat to its regional ambitions, and sought to use Côte d’Ivoire as a bulwark against its influence (going so far as to encourage the latter to recognize the would-be secessionist state of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s). In this context, it is Ouattara’s good fortune – and his country’s misfortune – that he can rely on French backing during his illegitimate third term. Sarkozy propelled him to power following the 2010 election when he deployed French troops to oust the stubborn Gbagbo; but now that Ouattara is himself proving equally stubborn, he is unlikely to suffer the same fate so long as he tows the line with Macron.

As things stand the country is at a stalemate, with the opposition, led by his veteran opponent Bédié, refusing to recognize the results and Ouattara trying to placate them with promises not to stand for yet another term. (The president has ‘made it clear to the members of his party that the ambitious ones wanting to succeed him should begin their preparations now’, according to one of his confidants). Perhaps he will succeed, perhaps he won’t; but Cote d’Ivoire, like the rest of the region, has for some time been undergoing a demographic explosion which is only now becoming apparent. 60 per cent of the population is under 24 years of age, the vast majority of whom have negligible prospects precisely as a result of the policies pursued by Ouattara’s IMF, which condemned Cote d’Ivoire to forever provide primary produce (the country is the world’s largest exporter of cocoa: an industry largely controlled by Ouattara’s son) at prices fixed in Paris. Thanks to social media, though, West African millennials have a platform to agitate against these injustices, as demonstrated by the #EndSARS uprising in Nigeria. When Nigeria’s burgeoning youth movement spreads to Côte d’Ivoire, it will have to confront not only the domestic authorities, but the French forces stationed there. The outcome will decide whether the country’s independence continues to remain nominal.

Read on: Alexandra Reza on popular mobilizations in Burkina Faso; Aminata Traoré & Boubacar Boris Diop on French incursions into Mali.