Alassane Ouattara: How Ivory Coast’s president stunned West Africa

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Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara has stunned his critics by announcing that he will not run for a third term, putting pressure on other regional leaders to follow his example, writes the BBC Newsday’s James Copnall from the main city, Abidjan.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an African politician comes to power, likes his time in office, and changes the constitution to run again.

This story has an unusual ending though – and one that has led to both applause and consternation in West Africa and further afield.

Earlier this month, Alassane Ouattara, 78, formally announced that he would not run for a controversial third term as president of cocoa-rich Ivory Coast, even though a recently modified constitution appeared to allow him that possibility.

There were gasps from the politicians who had gathered to hear him speak in the capital Yamoussoukro – and perhaps even louder sounds from the vicinity of the presidential palace in neighbouring Guinea.

‘Lesson in democracy’

For months opposition politicians in Guinea have been insisting that President Alpha Condé, 82, is intent on using any means he can to extend his stay in power.

There have been huge protests – and even deaths – in several places in Guinea over the issue, and Mr Condé is attempting to organise a referendum which would allow him to run again, even though he is in what is currently his second and final term.

According to one person who was in the room in Yamoussoukro, 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.

Others were happier, of course.

The Guinean opposition politician Sidya Touré, who used to work with Mr Ouattara, expressed his approval.

He called the decision a “lesson in democracy”, saying Mr Ouattara would be remembered for it, and added that he hoped “others would be inspired by it for the good of the region”.

There can be no doubt he was thinking of Mr Condé.

It would be interesting to know what former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré makes of it all.

He now lives in exile in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan, in a house not far from Mr Ouattara’s.

He was forced from power in 2014 by popular protests, after he tried to get the constitution changed to stay in office.

Mr Ouattara’s decision was surely motivated by a desire to leave on a high note, applauded around the world as a democrat – rather than condemned as a man who outstayed his welcome, like his guest Mr Compaoré.

‘Wounds have not healed’

Mr Ouattara’s announcement even drew praise from Ivorian opposition leaders.

Pascal Affi N’Guessan, a former prime minister and a key opposition figure, told the BBC he had to applaud the decision, saying it was a positive step for democracy in Ivory Coast.

Other opponents, including the man reported to be the richest in Ivory Coast, Jean-Louis Billon, made similar statements.

That does not stop them criticising the president’s time in power, of course.

Mr Ouattara’s supporters say he brought economic growth, stability and a renewed standing for Ivory Coast on the international stage.

“I think he has been a good president,” said Venance Konan, the veteran journalist who runs the state newspaper, Fraternité Matin.

“He came to power after a very difficult period, after a war. After nine years he has succeeded in rebuilding this country,” he added.

But opposition politicians – and many Ivorians – say that the president has not done enough to bring the nation together, and heal the wounds of the bitter conflict that divided Ivory Coast, and then brought him to power.

 

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