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New Report: Efforts Towards Peace in Côte d'Ivoire’s Presidential Elections

With just seven weeks until Cote d'Ivoire's presidential election, supporters of political parties, security forces, and militias have clashed in the streets, resulting in fatality estimates from seven to 26. A new report from a Simon-Skjodt Center fellow analyzes the evolving risks of mass atrocities in the country and the steps that domestic and international actors have taken to help prevent large-scale violence around the upcoming elections.

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Last summer, the Simon-Skjodt Center’s Early Warning Project published Election Uncertainty: Preventing Atrocity Crimes in Côte d’Ivoire (Des incertitudes électorales) identifying risk factors and worst-case scenarios that could lead to mass atrocities around the country’s October 2020 presidential election. 

The Center’s Early Warning Fellow, Dr. Arsène Brice Bado, conducted additional research in summer 2020 to reflect the fast-moving political situation in Côte d’Ivoire. Efforts Towards Peace in Côte d'Ivoire’s Presidential Elections (available in English* and French) builds on the findings and recommendations of Election Uncertainty. As part of a broader effort to consolidate peace in Côte d'Ivoire, the new report provides an update to the scenarios and political situation, as well as an overview of activities undertaken to prevent violence around the elections. 

Dr. Bado found that the scenarios identified in the original report are increasingly likely, with large-scale demonstrations and sometimes violent clashes between supporters of four major political parties and state security forces already underway. 

The initial report assessed that any mass atrocities would start with demonstrations, which could escalate to become riots, thereby bringing in political party–affiliated youth groups (which may have access to arms), communal militias, private security companies, groups of ex-combatants, and the army. Around the country, local grievances, such as those concerning land conflict, could feed the fire. People may use a period of political unrest, fueled by hate speech and fear-mongering spread by political leaders, to settle personal scores, thus expanding the reach of the conflict by calling on ethnic solidarity within and across regions as justification for taking up arms.

In August, President Alassane Ouattara announced he would seek a third term, claiming that he can legally do so despite assertions to the contrary by his opposition and civil society groups. On September 14, the Constitutional Council released the list of approved candidates, notably rejecting major contendors Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo (as well as 38 other aspiring candidates). Potential upcoming triggers of violence to watch include protests of the Constitutionnal Council's decision the decision and the announcement of results after the vote. 

Voting is scheduled to begin on October 31, and though violence—and if the worst comes to pass, mass atrocities—continue to be a concern, such an outcome is not guaranteed. 

Actions to ensure a peaceful electoral process are already underway, but more needs to be done. State and non-state actors in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as foreign governments and international NGOs all have a role to play. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other crises unfolding in the region, have delayed or limited funding towards activities to help prevent election violence and mass atrocity, making it increasingly difficult for Côte d’Ivoire’s civil society sector to operate. Religious and traditional leaders have publicly called for peace and unity and may be able to influence political leaders behind the scenes. The Ivorian government initiated a political dialogue in early 2020 that has stalled but could be renewed. Foreign governments and international organizations already have some programming underway, but the scale of the potential crisis merits additional resources and attention. Dangerous speech spreading on social media—including explicit calls for ethnically-targeted violence—warrants attention and commitment of resources from social media companies. 

The report concludes with recommendations to the Ivorian government and all political parties on actions they can take in the coming six weeks to ensure Côte d’Ivoire’s elections are peaceful.

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*The report was written in French. English translation was provided by Kate Deimling.