At a rally on the 22nd of August, his voice battling against the static crackle of the loudspeakers, President Alassane Ouattara declared that come election day, on the 31st of October, he would deliver “un coup de K.O” – a knockout punch in the first round.
Accepting his nomination as the candidate for Ivory Coast’s ruling RHDP party, the 78-year-old made clear his intention to remain in power. “We are the only political organisation capable of guaranteeing development and continued improvement of the living conditions of our fellow citizens in peace and security,” he said.
The tens of thousands of party supporters who had packed into the sports stadium, and were hanging on to his every word, fell into rapturous applause. The opposition, who consider Ouattara’s bid for a third term in office to be illegal, were furious.
The Ivorian constitution limits the presidency to two terms. The government argues that because the constitution was reformed in 2016, Ouattara has the right to start anew.
The president has been in office since 2011, taking power following a political crisis that cost at least 3,000 lives. Laurent Gbagbo was beaten by Ouattara at the polls a year earlier, but refused to leave office. Gbagbo was eventually arrested by pro-Ouattara forces backed by the French military.
In March of 2020, deep into his second term, Ouattara told the Senate and National Assembly that he would not run again for a third term, promising to “transfer power to a young generation”. He went as far as naming his Prime Minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, as his successor. But soon after Coulibaly died of a heart attack in July, the president said he would make the “true sacrifice” of running again.
The decision triggered outrage. In August, marches against his candidacy broke out across the country – often becoming violent. Ethno-linguistic groups both for and against Ouattara clashed across the country, with videos openly calling for murder circulated on social media. In the south-eastern town of Bonoua, an angry crowd torched the commissariat and tried to lynch the police chief. In less than a month, around 15 people died, hundreds were injured and thousands were displaced.
The government was quick to crack down in response to the growing unrest.
Pulchérie Gbalet is a lifelong human rights campaigner and a figurehead for opponents of the third term. After calling for protests during a meeting of her NGO, Alternative Citoyenne Ivorienne, she had received death and rape threats on Facebook. On the 15th of August, a group of men burst into the hotel room where she had been in hiding.
“I was giving instructions for my family to my associates when masked men claiming to be police came in and ordered us to come with them,” she told VICE News. “I wasn’t scared, because I was expecting it, but I did fear torture.”
Gbalet was arrested with two others and taken to Sebroko, a former UN building now serving as a base for the military’s organised crime unit. There, she met a trade unionist colleague, Aimé César Kouakou N’Goran, who had been kidnapped from his workplace car park by masked and heavily armed men some days before.
Kouakou N’Goran says he was tortured at the site and asked to give away Gbalet’s position, but had no idea where she was. “I was kept hooded and chained for three days,” Kouakou said. “I was hit with the flat side of a machete. One of my kidnappers said I was lucky, because if they had captured me two or three weeks earlier, I would have disappeared forever.” He also said that another detainee had been seriously cut, and alleged that he was denied access to his medicine despite having undergone an operation in June.
The International Federation for Human Rights supports the claim that Kouakou N’Goran was physically attacked. His lawyers say they plan to press charges and that they have flagged the incident to the UN. A spokesperson for the government is yet to respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
On the 19th of August, both Kouakou N’Goran and Gbalet were sent to La MACA, a dilapidated and notoriously overcrowded prison in Abidjan. The latter is currently sharing a tiny cell with seven others. “The conditions are not good, but we are adapting,” Gbalet said.
Four of Gbalet’s cellmates are women from the opposition GPS party, who were arrested after taking part in a protest march against the third term. She estimates that there are around 60 other inmates who were sent there following peaceful demonstrations.
The mother of two has been accused of breaching public order and the authority of the state, participating in an insurrectional movement, voluntary destruction of public property and provoking a mob. Fearing for her life, she had not even attended the protest she had called for.
Incarcerated since the 19th of August, Gbalet is yet to be sentenced. She is currently under investigation, and the state prosecutor is yet to decide whether there will be a trial.
Amnesty International has decried the “arbitrary arrest” of Gbalet and other “voices of dissent”. The organisation found that police in Abidjan’s pro-Gbagbo district of Yopougon actively encouraged thugs armed with clubs and machetes to disperse crowds during the protests – videos of the event went viral. The authorities have denied the allegation.
A Constitutional Court decision in September threatened further unrest. The judges, most of whom were appointed by Ouattara, ruled that the President’s new electoral bid was legal. They simultaneously barred 40 out of 44 other candidates from running. Among those excluded were Gbagbo and the popular former rebel-chief-turned-prime-minister Guillaume Soro. Both are living in exile and face 20-year prison sentences, handed out in absentia, should they return.
Two of the opposition candidates approved by the court, ex-president Henri Konan Bédié and ex-PM Pascal Affi N’Guessan, have since called for a campaign of “civil disobedience”. But in the current climate, such action is impossible. The government banned all public protest from the 19th of August onwards.
“The current government controls the electoral institutions and rules; it has a monopoly on physical violence,” explained Dr Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, an Ivorian sociologist and researcher at the Ghana-based African Security Sector Network. “If the opposition wants to renegotiate its position within this power dynamic, it has no option but to mobilise in the street,” he added, noting that this was largely a strategy to draw the attention of the international community. “The repression we are seeing is an attempt to neutralise this strategy of popular mobilisation.”
There has not been a peaceful transition of power in Ivory Coast since 1995. Although the government has recently released 13 Soro supporters, including two MPs, from prison, Koné worries that the wider crackdown on dissent could spell disaster.
“It radicalises the opposition and could lead to violence and contestation of the results after the election,” he said. “Violence is an indicator of the weakness of our democratic system.”
Despite being stuck in prison with no release in sight, Gbalet does not regret calling for protests: “We believe in Ivory Coast and we believe a new era will arise after the storm.”