Prof Jibrin Ibrahim was a member of the Electoral Reform Committee during the administration of former President Umaru Musa Yar’adua. He has observed elections in Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Togo, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Guinea for the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
In this interview with Daily Trust he spoke on the presidential election in Ivory Coast holding today and how its outcome would impact on the West African geo-political region.
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President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast amended the country’s constitution in a controversial circumstance to enable him contest for a third term. What do you make of this?
He actually reviewed the constitution in 2016. At that time he said he had no intention for a third term. When nominations for the presidential election were called, he got the party to nominate Coulibaly, who was the prime minister. But Coulibaly later died and he changed his mind, saying there was nobody in the party suitable to be president. So he decided to contest.
I think it is a very unfortunate decision, for many reasons. The first reason is that he has had his two terms and he is 78 years old. Contesting at this age is really creating a serious crisis for the country.
The most serious issue about this election is that he made it impossible for his major rivals to contest. He got the constitutional court to disqualify Guillaume Soro, his former ally and candidate of the youth. He got the electoral commission to reject the nomination of former President Gbagbo, who has been freed by the International Criminal Court in Hague. He has also refused to allow him come back to the country.
Almost all the other candidates who are strong have also been denied the right to contest. He changed the electoral law and introduced a new requirement, that for you to contest in the presidential election, one per cent of the electorate must sign to support you. So, many aspirants could not get that one per cent.
Tension is very high in that country now. Some of the opposition leaders are calling for a boycott and civil disobedience. He is creating a crisis similar to the one that existed when he came into power. When he was elected in 2010, there was a major crisis. Gbagbo refused to accept defeat. There was conflict and over 10,000 people were killed. It was a very bloody affair. The risk today is that they are likely to go back to that situation. And he is completely reckless in the way he is harassing all his political opponents.
What is the implication of his action on the West African geo-political region?
As you are aware, many West African leaders have tried to get a third term. In Nigeria, Obasanjo tried it and failed. In Niger, Tandja tried it and failed, in Senegal, Wade tried it and failed. What Ouattara is doing is opening a floodgate for more presidents in West Africa and other parts of Africa to try to change their constitutions to have a third term. He is also encouraging people who want to be in power till they die.
If you count from when he was prime minister, he has been in power for many decades. Why do you want to be in power forever? It destroys democratic process because it does not allow for free and fair election.
The concern for Africa is that the tendency to prevent a level playing ground leads to a breakdown of the democratic order. That is exactly what happened in Mali when, after the parliamentary election, the president got the constitutional court to cancel the victory of 31 parliamentarians so that he could have absolute majority in the parliament. People got angry and came out in the streets, demonstrating until the military used that opportunity to take over power.
Do you think boycotting the election and civil disobedience would in any way help the situation in Ivory Coast?
That will increase political tension. It is a very dangerous situation. My fear is that it will lead to a breakdown of law and order. I have always argued that boycotting an election is not the best option because the other side can claim victory, and the fact that you didn’t turn up will not be a consideration. I think it is always important that political parties participate in elections.
What should regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS do to strengthen democratic principles and practices among member states?
The reality is that both the ECOWAS and AU do not have the capacity to do something significant on this matter. This is because they are run by presidents, and Ouattara is their colleague. Maybe that is why they have not come out strongly to oppose his candidature. About 15 years ago, the AU was very clear in opposing tenure elongation. But these days they don’t even talk about it as a political problem in Africa. The sad reality is that both the ECOWAS and AU are not going to do much on this matter. They will wait until there is a breakdown of law and order before calling for peace. They should have acted before the election, but we have not seen them doing anything.
Do you think the incumbency factor will work for Ouattara?
Well, he has successfully stopped all his major rivals from contesting, so he will definitely win. The three others are low-level candidates who don’t command a lot of support. And that will be the beginning of the problem because people will not agree that he has won legitimately. In 2010, it was easy for him because he contested against a sitting president and defeated him very clearly. The United Nations (UN) monitored the election and stated in their report that he won. That was what made it difficult for Gbagbo to disregard the election results and continue in office. This time, if he wins, it would be considered an illegitimate result and the conflict will increase.
Apart from Ivory Coast, presidential elections are coming up in Niger and Ghana in the next few months. What do you think should be done to have credible polls in these countries?
In Niger, I think we must commend President Issoufou for sticking to his word and not seeking a third term. The opposition had suspected that he was planning to get a third term, but he insisted he was not going to contest. And very early in the process, he supported somebody else to emerge as the candidate of his party. That is really commendable. He learnt his lessons from the past. Recall that Tandja refused to leave office after his tenure and Issoufou was one of those leading the opposition against him. Now his time has come. The fact that he decided not to contest for a third term means that the election will not have a lot of tension. Since the incumbent president is not a candidate in the election, other parties will feel there would be level-playing field.
We don’t think there would be any significant problem in Ghana because they have been having presidential elections since 1992. So they have settled the issue of choosing their leaders through the electoral process. The problem in Ghana is that they are running essentially a two-party system, in which support for each party is almost 50: 50. So the election is very divisive. Usually, the winner will have only one or two per cent ahead of his rival because most people will vote for the two parties. Although there is always tension about how close an election is, they have had many situations where they had close results. People have lost power in elections. Remember that the former president lost his second term bid to the current one and it didn’t result in political difficulty. So my expectation is that the election would be conducted fairly and there would be no political crisis. There is a clear democratic maturity that has emerged in Ghana; and that is good for us.
What will be the implication of Ouattara’s victory on the West African sub-regional politics?
If Ouattara succeeds, it will encourage other West African presidents to also seek third term.
There have not been serious campaigns for the election. What do you make of this?
How can you have serious campaigns when the major candidates have been prevented from contesting? And there is a lot of intimidation by the ruling party. That is why it is a very risky and volatile situation.
Why do West African countries have a history of political violence?
I think we have a political class that is totally focused on getting power through any means possible. They either use violence or money to impose themselves in power. That tendency has to be combated seriously if we are to entrench and consolidate democracy.