Sudden Death of Ivory Coast Leader Throws Vote into Turmoil

By Pauline Bax, Leanne de Bassompierre and Baudelaire Mieu

The death of Ivory Coast’s prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, has thrown the ruling party into disarray, cast the race to succeed President Alassane Ouattara wide open and raised the prospect of a third-term bid by the incumbent.A taciturn technocrat and one of Ouattara’s most trusted aides, Gon Coulibaly was propelled into the political spotlight in March when 78-year-old Ouattara said he would step down after two terms. His announcement ended more than a year of uncertainty over the intentions of Ouattara, who hinted in 2018 that he was considering seeking a third term to sustain economic growth in the world’s biggest cocoa producer. Gon Coulibaly died Wednesday, less than a week after returning from France where he had been treated for heart problems.

“His death will raise many questions that will need to be answered in the coming days as the elections are only four months away,” said Kobi Annan, an analyst at consultancy Songhai Advisory based in Ghana and the U.K. “Ouattara was keen to emphasize that stability would continue with his choice of Gon Coulibaly. The elections weren’t necessarily going to be a popularity contest, but more of a contest about stability, and in that respect Gon Coulibaly was the personification of that.”

The uncertainty has unnerved financial markets, with the yield on Ivory Coast’s dollar bond due 2032, which has $1.11 billion outstanding, jumping 24.3 basis points to 6.35% at 6:43 p.m. in London Thursday, the biggest daily increase in seven weeks. Borrowing costs are still below this year’s high of more than 10%, recorded at the height of the coronavirus selloff in March.

Third Term

Now that Ouattara is left without his chosen successor, he’s faced with the choice between mounting a third-term bid or nominating someone else from the ruling Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace party to run in the October vote. Officials in the ruling alliance already began jockeying for power after 2016 constitutional reforms that created the position of vice president and abolished age limits for presidential candidates.

Among those who vied for the presidency at the time were Hamed Bakayoko, the defense minister who took over as acting premier while Gon Coulibaly was hospitalized in Paris, and former rebel leader Guillaume Soro. Soro, 48, has since quit the coalition to run for the opposition this year but lives in France after being charged of planning a coup in 2017. He has denied the allegations.

“Ouattara really wanted to hand over to a technocrat, but now that Gon Coulibaly is dead, it will be hard to pass over Hamed Bakayoko for the job,” Amaka Anku, the head Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, said from Washington D.C.

A ruling party committee will meet with Ouattara in the next few days to pick a candidate, the RHDP’s executive director, Adama Bictogo, told reporters Thursday. “Rest assured that it will a candidate that unifies, not one that divides,” he said. Reuters reported that party leaders agreed in a meeting late Wednesday to push the president to run for a third term.

Another key Ouattara ally, Henri Konan Bedie, 86, has also left the alliance and decided to run for the top office as the candidate for the country’s second-biggest political group, the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, known by the French acronym PDCI. He would be the ruling party candidate’s main opponent.

Personality Politics

Succession politics have roiled Ivory Coast since the death in office of strongman Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, who nurtured close ties with the former colonial power France and transformed the country into French-speaking West Africa’s economic hub. Political parties are driven by individual leaders rather than ideology, and voters are often motivated by regional and ethnic loyalties.

Ouattara’s 10-year tenure means that the ruling party is now the strongest political force in the country and still the best placed to win the elections, said Nathan Hayes, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.“The party has substantial resources at its disposal and numerous alliances with small interest groups, and electoral boundaries are favorable to the RHDP,” Hayes said in an email.

Ouattara called Thursday for the first physical cabinet meeting since the coronavirus gripped the country to hold Monday when he’s expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.