Without information, no reconciliation

Campaigning begins ahead of I.Coast referendum on new constitution

2 min 39Approximate reading time

The president of Ivory Coast insists it will heal a nation beset by violent turmoil, but as a referendum campaign for the nation's new draft constitution began Saturday, his opponents decried the text as dangerously anti-democratic.

Since the opposition has called for a boycott of the October 30 referendum, the draft basic law is almost certain to garner a majority "yes" vote.

The text is the brainchild of President Alassane Ouattara, who has said that it would "definitively turn the page on successive crises" in Ivory Coast.

"Yes to peace, to modernity," read the government's campaign posters.

But the clouds of tear gas deployed against protestors Thursday in Abidjan, where police briefly detained several opposition leaders, underlined the potential for tensions.

And Friday's suspension of two opposition newspapers, one for "spreading confusion... through false information," will have done little to calm fears among some.

"Just as the current constitution was against Ouattara, so this one is for Ouattara and his camp," explained political scientist Jean Alabro.

By Ouattara's telling, the new constitution would do away with the nationalistic concept of "Ivoiriete", which roughly translates as "Ivorian-ness".

In a country whose population, especially in the north, includes large numbers of people with roots in neighbouring states, the question of who is a "real Ivorian" has contributed to years of unrest, including a coup in 1999, a civil war in 2002 that split the country between its north and south, and a violent post-election crisis in 2011.

As a result of that latest bloodshed, former president Laurent Gbagbo is currently detained by the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of crimes against humanity.

- Key changes -

One of the key changes in the new text is the removal of a clause stipulating that presidential candidates must be born to parents both of whom are Ivorian citizens.

In the past, this clause prevented Ouattara himself, because of his parental links to Burkina Faso, from running for the country's top office. (He eventually overcame this obstacle through a decree Gbagbo was pressured to sign by the international community.)

While the removal of that stipulation has been broadly welcomed, the opposition has criticised a requirement that presidential candidates be exclusively Ivorian, saying it would disqualify people of dual nationality.

The proposed constitution also calls for the creation of the post of vice president, who would be elected on the same ticket as successful presidential candidates.

For the government, this would ensure continuity in the event of a head of state's death or incapacity.

For the opposition, the change is a "monarchistic tactic" and the new office-holder would the president's stooge.

If the draft passes into law, the first vice president would be immediately appointed by Ouattara, a measure that has led to rumours he is already trying to set up a successor for when his current and final term ends in 2020.

The draft also establishes a new legislative chamber in the form of a senate, two-thirds of whose members would be elected, with the remaining third appointed by the head of state.

This presidential prerogative is one of the opposition's several gripes about the new chamber.

- Locked out -

More broadly, the opposition complains that it, and civil society, played no part in the drafting of the proposed constitution.

"As someone once said, 'why be happy to get dessert, when you weren't offered the main course?'," said the head of the Ivorian Popular Front, the opposition party founded by Gbagbo, explaining why he favoured a boycott of the referendum.

Ouattara "is treating Ivory Coast as if it were his personal property. What he is offering is less than a constitution. It is a will and testament designed to destribute his country to his successors so it stays in the family," he added.

Beyond the confines of Ivory Coast's political class, many citizens seem to have more pressing concerns, and turnout is expected to be low.

"All that stuff is nonsense," said Bamory Kone, an auto mechanic in the Adjame district of Abidjan.

"What we care about is the high cost of living, getting out of poverty. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

"The constitution won't change anything. I'm not going to vote," he said.

Sign up to the newsletter