When Europeans or Americans ask about Ivory Coast, we locals may sound a little bit like we are quoting Charles Dickens. We have, after all, lived through the best and the worst of times. This week’s parliamentary election will play a major role in determining which we will face in the coming years.
After independence from France in 1960, the best of times came to Ivory Coast. In a difficult regional environment, our country was a beacon of progress, stability, and prosperity, with surging exports fueling steady economic growth. In 1981, Ivory Coast’s annual per capita GNP was among the highest in Africa.
But, in the late 1980s, commodity prices collapsed, decimating Ivory Coast’s export income and ushering in the worst of times. The ensuing decades were marred by corruption, decay, and two bouts of civil war.
Over the last decade, however, Ivory Coast has been on the road to recovery. Per capita GDP has doubled over the last eight years, and grew by nearly 2% in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2014, 2015, and 2019, the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index recognized Ivory Coast as one of the ten countries that had made the most progress on reform.
But this progress is not unassailable. In fact, the upcoming election will amount to a critical test for Ivory Coast’s democracy.
The election process has often posed a significant challenge for our country. In the decades after independence, our politics were heavily dominated by one party, and political discussions were severely limited, taking place largely behind closed doors. In that context, elections were viewed more as a ritual than as a true expression of democratic deliberation and popular consent.
Politics began to open up in the 1990s. But Ivory Coast’s institutions did not embrace the growing diversity of opinion. Instead, identity politics took root, fueling intolerance, division, and ultimately violence.
We are determined not to let that happen again. That is why my government has worked hard to build and consolidate a vibrant democracy, underpinned by the rule of law. It is also why, following the unexpected death of Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly – my party’s presidential candidate – last July, I decided to delay my planned retirement and run for another term.
Public trust in politicians – essential to individual freedom and collective development – depends on free, fair, and transparent elections. So, my government has taken a number of steps to bolster public confidence in the election process.
Heading into the March 6 vote, Ivory Coast boasts a truly independent electoral commission that is not controlled or directed by any authority, including me. Its voting and vote-counting processes are technically secure, and a mechanism for the peaceful resolution of any potential disputes is in place. Dozens of independent organizations will be on the ground to monitor the voting and verify the count.
To support this effort, my government has also pursued security-sector reform, so that Ivorian forces are operating according to the highest international standards. Our security services understand that their purpose is to safeguard the population, protect human rights, uphold the rule of law, and fight against extremists.
As was true during last year’s presidential election, the pandemic poses particular logistical and health challenges. But we have worked to mitigate them. In Ivory Coast, COVID-19 infection rates are modest, and the mortality rate, at 0.6%, is among the lowest in Africa. My government has made available all necessary resources to promote the health and safety of voters and polling staff throughout the election process.
But such technical and institutional preparations would mean little without a level playing field on which political parties can compete. And here, too, we have made tremendous progress: for the first time in over a decade, all major political parties are actively participating in the campaign.
Even as Ivory Coast’s political parties compete with one another, they share a commitment to a free, fair, and peaceful election that respects the rule of law and due process. They understand that, despite their differences, they must unite around our country’s fundamental values. In this spirit, citizens must also remember that extremists and opportunists have no place in a healthy democracy.
Of course, I fully support the candidates of my party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace, who I believe will win many seats. But, ultimately, that is up to the will of the people. In any case, democracy is not a zero-sum game, and a strong opposition within a diverse parliament will challenge the government constantly to improve.
Too often, the real losers in Ivory Coast’s elections have been ordinary Ivorians. We now have an opportunity to leave our democratic lapses in the past, and lay strong foundations upon which the next generation of Ivorian leaders can build. The future is theirs, and it is bright.
Alassane Ouattara is President of Ivory Coast.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.