Extensive and coordinated military mutinies in Côte d’Ivoire during the first week of January 2017 have been attributed to grievances about pay and housing allowances. But we should not have any illusions. This event has a political dimension that could keep Côte d’Ivoire on the edge of instability until the presidential election of 2020.
There was high tension in several Côte d’Ivoire cities during first week of January 2017. Military units mutinied against their civilian leadership in the major cities, including Abidjan and Bouaké. The mutinous soldiers were fully armed, and in some residential neighborhoods, they frightened people by firing their weapons.
In the country’s second largest city, Bouaké, the troops actually controlled the entire town, and held the Minister of Defense prisoner for several hours after he came to negotiate.
The troops claimed they were paid too little and had inadequate housing. They accused the government of breaking promises. Since the end of the internal war in 2011, the rebel army that fought for ten years to bring President Alassane Ouattara to power has effectively become the army of Côte d’Ivoire.
Over the weekend of January 7-8, President Ouattara announced that the promised arrears would be paid. This resulted in the mutineers returning to their barracks. After promising to make the promised payments, the President gently criticized the troops for their method of expressing their grievances.
Most observers have now decided that the problem has been solved, and that government can now return to normal. Unfortunately, the issue involves more than pay and allowances. There is a political dimension that needs to be addressed. Behind the military unrest is a fierce competition for power as President Ouattara prepares to leave the scene at the end of his second and final term in 2020.
The person to watch is Guillaume Soro, the President of the National Assembly. Soro was the leader of the rebels who fought against, and defeated, former President Gbagbo. More than anyone, Soro can claim credit for having brought Ouattara to power. As a result he was rewarded with the second highest governmental position in Côte d’Ivoire: as President of the National Assembly, Soro is first in line for the Ivorian presidency in the event there is an unexpected vacancy.
As he looks to the future, President Ouattara is deciding who he wants to be his successor. It appears from recent personnel movements, that Guillaume Soro will not be the President’s first choice. Far from it.
The President has already arranged to change the constitution to create the position of Vice President, thereby moving the President of the National Assembly to third place in the line of succession. It also appears that the President will support another political ally to succeed him as head of state, Ahmadou Coulibali, who is currently serving as Secretary General of the Presidency.
Needless to say, Guillaume Soro is witnessing a slow eclipse from the power for which he fought as leader of Ouattara’s rebels over a ten-year period. We should look at the soldiers’ mutiny of the first week of January 2017 as a warning to those who take for granted that President Ouattara’s choice for someone else as his successor will prevail.
Between 2017 and the presidential election of 2020, political stability in Côte d’Ivoire is not guaranteed.