Alassane Ouattara: How Ivory Coast's president stunned West Africa

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Alassane OuattaraImage source, Getty Images

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara has stunned his critics by announcing that he will not run for a third term, putting pressure on other regional leaders to follow his example, writes the BBC Newsday's James Copnall from the main city, Abidjan.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: an African politician comes to power, likes his time in office, and changes the constitution to run again.

This story has an unusual ending though - and one that has led to both applause and consternation in West Africa and further afield.

Earlier this month, Alassane Ouattara, 78, formally announced that he would not run for a controversial third term as president of cocoa-rich Ivory Coast, even though a recently modified constitution appeared to allow him that possibility.

There were gasps from the politicians who had gathered to hear him speak in the capital Yamoussoukro - and perhaps even louder sounds from the vicinity of the presidential palace in neighbouring Guinea.

'Lesson in democracy'

For months opposition politicians in Guinea have been insisting that President Alpha Condé, 82, is intent on using any means he can to extend his stay in power.

There have been huge protests - and even deaths - in several places in Guinea over the issue, and Mr Condé is attempting to organise a referendum which would allow him to run again, even though he is in what is currently his second and final term.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Guineans are demanding that President Condé steps down at the end of his two terms

According to one person who was in the room in Yamoussoukro, a Guinean minister telephoned an Ivorian counterpart just after Mr Ouattara made his announcement to express his dismay at the impact it might have on Mr Condé's attempt to remain in office in Guinea.

Others were happier, of course.

The Guinean opposition politician Sidya Touré, who used to work with Mr Ouattara, expressed his approval.

He called the decision a "lesson in democracy", saying Mr Ouattara would be remembered for it, and added that he hoped "others would be inspired by it for the good of the region".

There can be no doubt he was thinking of Mr Condé.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
In opposition, Alpha Condé was seen as a champion of democracy

It would be interesting to know what former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré makes of it all.

He now lives in exile in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, in a house not far from Mr Ouattara's.

He was forced from power in 2014 by popular protests, after he tried to get the constitution changed to stay in office.

Mr Ouattara's decision was surely motivated by a desire to leave on a high note, applauded around the world as a democrat - rather than condemned as a man who outstayed his welcome, like his guest Mr Compaoré.

'Wounds have not healed'

Mr Ouattara's announcement even drew praise from Ivorian opposition leaders.

Pascal Affi N'Guessan, a former prime minister and a key opposition figure, told the BBC he had to applaud the decision, saying it was a positive step for democracy in Ivory Coast.

Other opponents, including the man reported to be the richest in Ivory Coast, Jean-Louis Billon, made similar statements.

That does not stop them criticising the president's time in power, of course.

Alassane Ouattara
Getty Images
Key facts: Alassane Ouattara

  • Bornon New Year's Day in 1948

  • Member of the Islamic faith

  • MarriedFrench businesswoman Dominique Folloroux in 1991

  • PhD in economics and worked for IMF

  • Sworn in as president on 6 May 2011 after years in opposition

Source: BBC

Mr Ouattara's supporters say he brought economic growth, stability and a renewed standing for Ivory Coast on the international stage.

"I think he has been a good president," said Venance Konan, the veteran journalist who runs the state newspaper, Fraternité Matin.

"He came to power after a very difficult period, after a war. After nine years he has succeeded in rebuilding this country," he added.

But opposition politicians - and many Ivorians - say that the president has not done enough to bring the nation together, and heal the wounds of the bitter conflict that divided Ivory Coast, and then brought him to power.

'Hoping for fresh blood'

Around 3,000 people are thought to have died in the war sparked by Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to accept he had lost the 2010 elections to Mr Ouattara, before troops loyal to the current president arrested Mr Gbagbo in April 2011 and handed him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Mr Gbagbo was acquitted but the prosecution is considering appealing against the ruling.

Media caption,

Joseph Gnagbo fled to Wales when his life was threatened in Ivory Coast after the elections in 2010

The tactics used by Mr Ouattara's supporters during his time in power have been criticised too.

For example, Mr Billon - who used to be close to Mr Ouattara - said that when he broke with the president and his team, his businesses were audited for months in an attempt to intimidate him.

So, was he a democrat who developed the country, or a man who failed to bring the country together?

Ivorians will have a chance to show which view of Mr Ouattara's legacy they agree with in the elections in October.

He and his political movement are backing his Prime Minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, as their candidate.

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It will be interesting to see the final outcome of Mr Gbagbo's legal battle with the ICC, and whether it will have an impact on the October elections.

Mr Gbagbo's supporters are desperate for him to run again - which might be possible if his legal issues are resolved.

However, it is difficult to see how he could go back to Ivory Coast without certain assurances from Mr Ouattara.

Mr Ouattara's former key ally Guillaume Soro is in a similar position.

A one-time rebel leader who went on to serve as prime minister and parliamentary speaker, he wants to run for president.

But he had to abort an attempt to return to Ivory Coast in December, after several of his allies were arrested, and an arrest warrant was issued for him after he was accused of plotting a coup.

Many saw it as a warning for Mr Gbagbo.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Supporters of Ivory Coast's ex-President Laurent Gbagbo were jubilant following his acquittal

The long-running political disputes between him, Mr Ouattara and another former President Henri Konan Bédié have been disastrous for Ivory Coast.

It is unclear whether Mr Bédié will also make way for a younger candidate from his party.

Lots of Ivorians have told me over the last few days that the country needs a new generation of leaders.

The region will be watching the election closely: any turmoil in Ivory Coast has an economic and political impact in places like Burkina Faso, Liberia and Guinea.

If Mr Ouattara's decision to stand aside helps lead to peaceful elections in October, the pressure for other leaders in West Africa and further afield to follow Mr Ouattara's lead could grow.

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