On the very day that Macron wept with the injured on the streets of Beirut, both Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé significantly advanced their bids to secure 3rd terms as Presidents of their respective countries, Ivory Coast and Guinea. Both nations, resource rich economic pillars of West Africa and former French colonies, in principle have constitutional limits of two presidential terms. The ruling elites bending the law to allow them to remain in power represents African democracy in reverse gear, pedal to the metal.
Depriving millions of Guineans and Ivorians of electoral choice has obvious negative implications within their borders. But on the international level, the autocratic moves by Macron’s African counterparts cause him significant consternation. French leadership naturally keeps a close eye on the political machinations of its former colonies, whose political elites typically retain lobbyists of various levels of sophistication who plead their case in the corridors of the Elysée Palace. Thus, it’s unlikely that Macron did not know in advance that Ouattara and Condé would move in the direction of autocracy exactly when they did.
In an era when the continent moves further away from family dynasties and presidents-for-life, Ivory Coast and Guinea bucking the trend raises serious questions about Macron’s Africa policy. As recently as March, he extolled the democratic virtues of Ouatarra by tweeting: “I salute the decision of [President Ouatarra] to not be a candidate…tonight, Ivory Coast sets the example.” With Macron’s approval, Ouatarra had prepared a clean exit after 2 terms, having groomed his Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, to take the reins. The plan seemed solid.
Just a few weeks after that tweet, however, Coulibaly announced a decision to self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone positive for COVID-19. Though he never tested positive himself, he left to France in May, presumably for medical treatment (he had heart surgery back in 2012) and only returned in early July. Coulibaly dropped dead just a few days later. The vacancy prompted chaos in Ouattara’s party. He laid low as they ostensibly searched for a replacement flag-bearer. But ultimately he is betting that the death of candidate due to bad health less than 100 days before an election in the midst of global pandemic offers considerable cover for an unconstitutional power grab.
The timing of Ouattara’s float of the decision was auspicious. The explosion rocked Beirut on 4 August; he delivered his 25-minute address to the nation two days later on the eve of the celebration of Ivorian independence from France. There is something symbolic, or perhaps cheeky, about an African head of state charting an undemocratic course that is surely to meet the disapproval of its former master on the very day commemorating the removal of the colonial yoke.
As for Condé, he proceeded with a bit more discretion last week while Beirut captured France’s attention: his party merely nominated him to run for a third term. But the groundwork has been laid months in advance, as they rammed through an amended constitution back in April. Macron cannot be too pleased with these conditions, but Condé has many friends in high places in France, as well as a feckless opposition that has not given Macron enough reason to abandon him.
This conundrum is not new. Other French leaders have had to deal with similar rebellious streaks before, like in 2012 when former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade used contorted constitutional logic to try to seize a third term, to the annoyance of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. In Wade’s case, however, the population grew tired of him after 12 years and he lost by a landslide in the 2nd round of the election.
Neither Ouattara nor Condé seem likely to face defeat, and if they remain in power, the democratic image of francophone West Africa will be badly blemished. That does not auger well for Macron’s legacy. Fortunately for him, he can compensate with the leadership he will exhibit via the Lebanon file.
Macron returns to Beirut on 1 September for another hero’s welcome that makes him the envy of his European peers, and for a convenient distraction from the inevitable media attention focused on questionable third term bids by the presidents of two important nations in France’s sphere of influence.