A president does the right thing

The world is desperately in need of some good news at the moment, so let’s turn our attention to unfamiliar territory in the form of Ivory Coast (also Côte d’Ivoire) in West Africa.

West Africa mostly flies under the radar as far as our media are concerned, but as far as the fortunes of democracy are concerned it has followed the same pattern as most of the rest of the world: a period of significant gains in the 1990s, followed by stalling and occasional backsliding in the last decade.

There have been success stories as well, such as the departure of Gambia’s autocrat Yahya Jammeh three years ago. But democratic decay has often taken the form of leaders who were elected more or less democratically finding creative ways to avoid term limits and stay in power.

Which brings us to Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast, who was first elected in 2010. He was unable to take office, however, until the following year, having to first win a short civil war against his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to yield the job peacefully.

Ouattara was re-elected in a landslide in 2015. Presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but after the adoption of a new constitution in 2016, Ouattara expressed the view that this had reset the clock for term limits – a common tactic for autocrats, used by, for example, former president Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Here, however, Ouattara departed from the script. With elections due in October, he announced earlier this month that he would not be a candidate, and subsequently endorsed his prime minister and party colleague, Amadou Gon Coulibaly.

The move is not just welcome in its own right, but it sets a powerful example for the region. In neighboring Guinea, 82-year-old president Alpha Condé, facing the same term limit, has been working hard to evade it. As the BBC’s James Copnall reports:

According to one person who was in the room in Yamoussoukro [the Ivory Coast capital], a Guinean minister telephoned an Ivorian counterpart just after Mr Ouattara made his announcement to express his dismay at the impact it might have on Mr Condé’s attempt to remain in office in Guinea.

Politics in West Africa is not for the faint-hearted. Like many countries in the region, Ivory Coast is plagued by ethnic and religious divisions, which helped produce both the civil war of 2010-11 and an earlier, longer version in 2002-07. The advent of the coronavirus Covid-19 now threatens further devastation.

Ouattara, whose Rally of the Republicans is one of the few liberal parties in power (or anywhere near it) in Africa, seems to have been more successful than most in promoting economic growth and development while keeping a lid on his country’s worst problems. A peaceful handover of power later in the year would be another major contribution.

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