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Prêt à présider? Ready to chair? Candidates for Côte d’Ivoire’s new vice-presidency by Nick Branson

Assuming Ivorians endorse the proposed constitution in the referendum on Sunday 30 October, attention will quickly turn to the question of leadership in the “Third Republic”. Upon promulgating the new constitution, it will fall to the head of state, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, to appoint a vice-president, the first in Côte d’Ivoire’s history. From October 2020, this position will be elected as the president’s “running mate”; however, given Ouattara’s intention to stand-down before then, his new deputy should be prepared to govern. The vice-presidency is not the only potential vacancy; there is also the important matter of who will chair a new political party – the establishment of which has been repeatedly delayed. Nick Branson considers the main contenders and the dynamics which could help and hinder them.  

As outlined in a new Briefing Note, Côte d’Ivoire’s founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, went to considerable lengths to avoid naming a constitutional successor. Investing power in individual politicians rather than in national institutions was one reason Côte d’Ivoire descended into conflict following his death. Ouattara has framed the new statute as a means to provide stability by formalising the electoral calendar and preventing a succession crisis. All sound theory, but he will soon have to make public his preferred heir – a step which would have been an anathema to Houphouët-Boigny.

Ouattara remains indebted to two men, whose interests he will need to consider when making his decision. The first, who he refers to as his aîné (elder), is former president Henri Konan Bédié, leader of the Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). The endorsement of the PDCI enabled Ouattara to win the second-round run-off in the 2010 presidential elections. In September 2014, Bédié pledged to support Ouattara for another term as president, rather than proposing a candidate from the PDCI. The Appel de Daoukro, as Bédié’s endorsement speech is known, led to ructions within his party.

The second man, who Ouattara used to call his fils (son), is Guillaume Soro, an ex-rebel leader from the north of the country. Soro is aligned to Ouattara’s party Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) and briefly served as his first prime minister. Under the current constitution, it is Soro, who, as president of the National Assembly, would temporarily succeed Ouattara in the event of his incapacitation in office. Elections would then need to be held within between 45 and 90 days.

In early October, Séraphin Yao Kouamé, a PDCI cadre, told the media that he was certain Bédié would be named as Ouattara’s vice-president, forcing Bédié to dismiss the speculation. Soro has also been cajoled into confirming his intention to stand for re-election to parliament and his desire to seek another five-year term as president of the National Assembly. Even if both men stick to their word and remain on the sidelines, they will still have their preferred candidates.

Soro, 44, has a personal interest in remaining at the pinnacle of Ivorian politics. While numerous Ivorians have faced prosecution for their role in the civil war, Soro has thus far remained untouched. In 2015, Soro avoided a French arrest warrant relating to a law suit brought by the son of former president Laurent Gbagbo. Until recently he was wanted in Burkina Faso for his alleged involvement in an attempted coup d’état in Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbour.

The persistence of military command structures entrenched during the civil war has enabled Soro to retain significant influence in the north of the country. With 77% of the Ivorian population under 35 years old, his youthfulness could also prove to be an electoral asset. But to gain party backing for a presidential election bid in 2020, he will need a helping hand from his elders. For Soro to advance within the RDR, Ouattara must appoint a vice-president from the south of the country, either from the PDCI or with little political base of their own.

Ouattara need not look far for a technocratic Ivorian short on grassroots appeal. The former Ecobank CEO, Thierry Tanoh, is currently deputy secretary-general for the presidency. Patrick Achi, the Minister of Economic Infrastructure since 2000 is another Ouattara confidant. The Credit Suisse director general, Tidjane Thiam, served as Planning Minister under Bédié and comes from the West African political aristocracy. All three men have spent a considerable amount of time outside the country, which may prove controversial given the historical restrictions on “outsiders” seeking political office. Bédié may prefer Ouattara to be deputised by a political heavyweight, such as the current prime minister, Daniel Kablan Duncan, or his predecessor, Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio, both PDCI stalwarts.

Promoting Duncan to the vice-presidency would enable Ouattara to appoint a new prime minister from his own party, and thus clarify his preferred heir. An obvious candidate would be Soro’s frère-ennemi, Hamed Bakayoko. The only Minstre d’État in Duncan’s cabinet, “Hambak” has overseen the interior and security portfolio since 2011. Having founded the pro-Ouattara newspaper Le Patriote in 1991, he was appointed by the president’s wife, Dominique, to run Radio Nostalgie, two years later. Bakayoko served as Minister for ICT under the unity government led by Gbagbo and was elected as RDR treasurer in 2006.

Less prominent but equally influential is Amadou Gon Coulibaly, secretary-general to the presidency. Gon Coulibaly worked alongside Ouattara during the latter’s time as prime minister (1990-93). He served as minister for agriculture under the unity government, and oversaw the Programme présidentiel d’urgence instigated when Ouattara became head of state. Like Bakayoko, he is a party stalwart and close to the first family. Gon Coulibaly was elected as deputy secretary general of the RDR in 2006, and he works alongside the president’s younger brother, Téné Birahima Ouattara, director of financial and administrative affairs at the palace.

Amid a strong field of potential contenders, the temptation may be to resolve this question in tandem with the recalibration of the ruling coalition. Ouattara’s RDR and Bédié’s PDCI have long been due to merge, formalising their alliance under the banner of Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP). Appointments to the executive of the new structure could soften the blow for those disappointed in their pursuit of the vice-presidency.

Bédié may also spy an opportunity to reconcile with those he ostracised with the Appel de Daoukro. Former prime minister Charles Konan Banny was appointed by Ouattara to oversee a Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CDVR), but was curiously absent from the launch of its report last week. Similarly, an ex-PDCI youth leader, Kouadio Konan Bertin, has been a vocal critic of drive for a new constitution, but arrived late for an opposition rally. Might one of the two be offered a prize spot in the new RHDP hierarchy and a shot at the presidency in 2020 in return for their loyalty?