Abidjan — On November 14, President Alassane Ouattara of the Ivory Coast opened the Council of Ministers meeting with a surprising announcement: the government had been dissolved and all daily business was to be conducted by Prime Minister Jeannot Kouadio Ahoussou until further notice. President Ouattara then left for the Vatican to meet with the Pope.
A communiqué read by Ouattara's secretary cited "tensions with coalition partners" for the dissolution and no further official details were released until a week later on November 21, when the president appointed Daniel Kablan Duncan as the new prime minister. A new Council of Ministers was named the day after.
The nomination of Duncan did not come as a shock as rumours predicting his nomination had been circulating all week. The Council of Ministers remained more or less the same, with four newcomers, ten being pushed aside and a minor reshuffling among the others. President Ouattara will retain control over the security forces, with the help of Paul Koffi Koffi as Deputy Minister of Defence. Hamed Bakayoko remains interior minister.
As Venance Konan, one of Abidjan's most famous columnists, summed up: "A new head, same body".
A marriage bill on the rocks?
The week of silence between the government's dissolution and the nomination of Duncan left plenty of room for interpretation.
The "source of tension" mentioned by government officials referred to a controversial marriage bill that would make husbands and wives equals as head of the family. Certain members of the ruling opposition, most notably from the Parti Démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI), strongly opposed the bill. Following the reshuffle, however, the bill was voted through with little opposition.
A local journalist proposed an interesting theory during the Ivory Coast's week without government: a clash between the two coalition partners could have been a way for Ouattara to enforce the creation of an opposition. Laurent Gbabgo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which was forcibly removed from power in 2011 after it rejected the election results, boycotted the last legislative elections leaving Ouattara's government without opposition. Some saw this forced dissolution as a Machiavellian move to create a constructive opposition which has been badly lacking in Ivorian politics.
However, the nomination of Duncan, a member of PDCI, as prime minister and the maintained balance over ministerial seats between coalition partners proves such voices wrong. In terms of institutional control, the Ivory Coast is in more or less the same state as two weeks ago: Alassane Ouattara remains unopposed.
Putting the economy first
During his nomination speech, Duncan stated that the president's objectives for the new government are to reach a double digit growth rate by 2014, making the Ivory Coast an emerging economy by 2020, and to reduce both poverty and unemployment. He reiterated President Ouattara's earlier commitments to form a strong economy that can drive the country out of more than a decade of political crisis.
In political circles, it is said that President Ouattara wanted to retain control over the economy, but lacked enough time to ensure this. Kablan Duncan's nomination is, in some ways, therefore a compromise. But it is also an odd travel back in time.
Duncan was first named Minister of Economy and Finance in 1990. In 1993, he replaced Alassane Ouattara to become the second prime minister of the Ivory Coast. President Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled from independence in 1960 to his death in 1993, had been pressured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to recreate the position of Prime Minister in 1990 after it had been abolished in 1960, and to name IMF official Ouattara as Prime Minister. The IMF hoped Ouattara could liberalise the sinking economy. Duncan replaced Ouattara at Houphouët-Boigny's death, when Henri Konan Bédié became president and relations with Ouattara turned sour.
When first put in charge of finances, Duncan was stepping in after a decade of failed IMF structural adjustment policies that had left the country incapable of paying back debts. He was also in charge in 1994 when the CFA franc was devalued, which badly damaged the country's economy. And he became the Ivory Coast's longest serving prime minister until he was forced out of office by the military coup of 1999.
The Ivorian elephant in the room
A local columnist remarked that Duncan brings the country 13 years backward, to a time when the government was so obsessed with getting numbers straight that it failed to predict the upcoming socio-political crisis. In his first speech, Daniel Kablan Duncan did not speak about reconciliation or justice. He did touch on security, but only to reaffirm that the Ivorian Security Council resolutions are to be maintained.
But while Duncan may not have addressed these issues himself, the Ivory Coast's recent socio-political tensions came to the fore nonetheless when the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched a warrant against former Ivorian First Lady Simone Gbagbo as Duncan was naming his new Council of Ministers. Additionally, in the last few months, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several UN reports have criticised the Ivorian government's violations of human rights. They denounced torture, partial justice, arbitrary arrests, instability and uncontrollable security forces.
It is unclear whether the government will react to the ICC mandate in the same way it has for numerous previous reports on human rights - that is, ignoring it. The government faces a difficult choice. Ouattara's team either has to support the ICC investigation and extradite the former First Lady to The Hague in the knowledge the next arrest warrant might be directed at someone from their own camp. Or it can ignore the warrant and judge Simone Gbagbo at home, maintaining control over the judicial process and potentially offering selective pardons to certain constructive FPI actors. Both options have their pros and cons, but either strategy could increase tensions amongst Ouattara's allies, both within and outside his own party.
President Ouattara cannot ignore these issues anymore, and Daniel Kablan Duncan cannot make the same mistakes that he did 13 years ago. The formation of a new government might appear to be no more than a communication strategy, but it has to understand that a focus on the economy is not sufficient to reconcile a shattered nation.
Marc-André Boisvert is a freelance journalist and researcher who lives in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire and specialises in civilian-military relations in western Africa.