The Famous Historic Frenemies Ouattara, Gbagbo, and Bédié in the Ivory Coast

  • Ouattara, Gbagbo and Bedie have dominated Ivorian politics for decades.
  • Alassane Ouattara has proposed that the three retire from the political scene to bring stability to the country.
  • After two civil wars, the outcome looks unsure.

Why is Ouattara now frenemies with Gbagbo and Bédié

Answer: Recent meeting allows Ouattara, Gbagbo, and Bédié to come together in an act of national reconciliation. 

The competitive dynamic between Alassane Ouattara, the current President, former President Laurent Gbagbo, and also former President Henri Konan Bédié has dominated Ivorian politics and caused political instability in the country. Several years of political infighting, two civil wars, thousands of deaths and more than 1.3 million displaced Ivorians, culminated in Gbagbo’s arrest at the Hague. Although he was acquitted after 8 years in 2019 of his four counts of crimes against humanity. More recently in 2020, the Ivory Coast experienced more political violence after the president ran and won, allegedly violating the constitution for his third run, but was later approved by the Ivorian Constitutional Council, in what seemed to be politically motivated. 

Today, the former presidents both are powerful forces in the Ivorian political scene. Bédié is currently the head of the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast, while Gbagbo heads his newly created African People’s Party – Ivory Coast, launched just last year. Both of them want to continue to strengthen their own political power and influence in the Ivory Coast through their respective parties.

To understand contemporary Ivorian politics is to more or less understand the relationship between these three leaders. Each of them flip their support to one another when deemed politically advantageous, which is why it is surprising that the president would promote talks between the three. In a historic meeting, he sat down with his two rivals to discuss the country’s future, which he meant as a future without themselves. In an attempt to reconcile their respective voter bases and themselves, the president opted for a multiparty discussion to move the country forward, even if it does not immediately benefit him. 

What does Ouattara want?

Answer: National reconciliation and for the Ivory Coast to move forward from its current presidential options. 

The leader’s current mandate was challenged as it was his third term, so he understands running again would likely cause another outbreak of political turmoil as it did in the previous election cycles. With the Ivory Coast going through two civil wars in just the last two decades and a series of political violence, he is likely looking to avoid the prospect of any more violence. The president equally understands that a presidency under either of the former presidents would be against his own interests, as it would allow the power-vacuum to continue, but would kick him out of the race.

With this being said, he sees his best option to reconcile with both of them to prevent either of them from retaking power and the country from another outbreak of violence.

One of the president’s main goals, as he finishes off his current mandate, is to continue routine talks with his competitors. He said that he will “call on” his two counterparts to remain within the political sphere until the elections in 2025. By keeping his opponents close, the president can ensure that their political aspirations are being met, while controlling the meetings. 

In the end, the president hopes that he can cement his name in Ivorian history by being the peace broker between the three factions that have caused so much trouble to the nation. Essentially, he hopes that he can convince the former leaders to not run in 2025, which for him, will be an undeniable win. 

What does Gbagbo want?

Answer: To remain in Ivorian politics and to oppose Bédié and Ouattara’s Houphouëtist vision.

Since coming back to the Ivory Coast after his arrest by the ICC, Gbagbo has made it clear that he will remain in politics, whether it is on the front stage or behind the curtains. Upon his return to the country, hundreds of his supporters greeted him at the airport, highlighting his popularity despite being in prison for crimes against humanity. Later in 2021, Gbagbo created his new party, the African People’s Party – Ivory Coast, to splinter away from his previous party, the Ivorian Popular Front, which is controlled by his former PM. 

Rhetoric against ‘non-native Ivorians’ has been used as a scapegoat for some of the country’s failures. Gbagbo also utilises this Ivorian nationalism to his advantage, especially against the president in 2010, who is half Burkinabé. Though now, Gbagbo is looking towards becoming a pan-Africanist leader in a splintered West Africa – that is, if he does not follow suit with the peace talks between himself, the president and Bédié. 

As a Marxist, he is also ideologically opposed to Houphouëtism, the ideology of the first Ivorian President Felix Houphouët-Boigny, which is currently followed by the leader and Bédié through a neoliberal perspective. Despite making numerous public appearances (including one dismissing his involvement in the 2010 civil war), Gbagbo does not appear to be entirely interested in a 2025 run. After returning to the Ivory Coast, he made it clear that he understands his career is coming to a close and cannot stay in Ivorian politics forever, though he did not rule out a 2025 campaign. 

Nonetheless, the creation of the new party and the cooperation to meet with his competitors shows that at the moment, he appears willing to work with them to overcome the political divide that has for so long torn apart the Ivory Coast. Though he may not be a leader of the country again, one of his ambitions is to continue his political legacy in the Ivory Coast. Reconciling with Bédié and the president, and possibly continuing to work behind the scenes with his new party is his path.

What does Bédié want?

Answer: Remain in Ivorian politics and stay in communication with Ouattara in the coming months. 

Like Gbagbo, Bédié would like to stay in the Ivorian political scene. However, he has not made as many high-profile public appearances as his counterpart, displaying his slow dissociation from Ivorian politics. However, he is still the head of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast and in 2020 was on the ballot against the president, despite boycotting the election. 

Following the boycott, it was reported that the former presidents were staying in contact with each other in what seemed to be an unlikely alliance. However, he called out the current Ivorian President saying he felt as though he was “forgotten” by Ouattara’s lack of communication. By making this statement publicly, he is nudging his counterpart’s administration to keep him in the loop of all things Ivorian politics. Thus it is quite clear that Bédié’s ambitions are to stay connected in Ivorian politics, whether that means that he challenges Ouattara or possibly Gbagbo in 2025, or stays on the periphery. 

What is Ouattara doing?

Answer: Talking with both historic rivals to move forward with the prospect of national reconciliation to allow new political faces to come into the mainstream. 

The president currently understands that the future of the Ivory Coast is dependent on reconciliation with its past. In 2018, he granted clemency to 800 convicted Ivorians who were a part of the violence that took place after the election. 

Over the past few years, he has also realised that the future of the Ivory Coast relies on reconciliation with his rivals. After the election crisis of 2020, he and Bédié met to resolve the problems that were plaguing the West African state, after calls from the UN, France, and neighbouring countries. The president also met with Gbagbo in July 2021 after his return from exile and acquittal from the ICC, representing the openness that he had towards reconciliation. He also said that he would continue to meet with his competitor to show his intention of a more collaborative future. 

Most recently, he held a meeting with both of them to discuss the future of the Ivory Coast through the path of reconciliation, as well as contemporary issues such as the rising cost of living and the Ukrainian grain crisis. This was the first time the leaders all met since 2011, and a historic moment for the country. The president will continue to meet with the leaders as long as they are willing.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Opens the door for a politically strong Ivory Coast, amidst democratic backsliding in West Africa.

If all goes according to the leader’s plan, he will be winning. With Ivorian politics being dominated by the three leaders over the past three decades, he would undoubtedly go down in history as the one to put the country into political stability through a successful democratic transition. If the other two leaders act according to his proposals, this would become his legacy.   

Regionally, this could mean a more stable Ivory Coast in West Africa. Ivory Coast’s political past has brought a high volume of displacement to neighbouring countries. With the three leaders looking to come together to move forward from their political pasts, Ivory Coast can serve as a better ally to its regional neighbours, by preventing the spillover of conflict or refugees across their borders. 

While conflict may subside due to a new president coming into the Ivory Coast, however, reconciliation needs to be respected on all sides. Since none of the leaders have completely ruled out a 2025 run, the president has three years to convince the two leaders to move away from the presidential aspirations. Failure to do so opens up the possibility to erupt yet another political conflict in the Ivory Coast, as Gbagbo’s awaited return awakens old divergences in the country. 

The several meetings also come amidst several West African coup d’états specifically in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso. However, now that Ouattara officially comes to the table with his two rivals, the current prospect of another ECOWAS conflict seems bleak, as long as the three leaders are able to come together with the same objectives.