A cell phone video obtained by Human Rights Watch and shared with CNN by HRW showed the protesters in Elibou town singing and waving flags in front of a line of security forces in riot gear. Sometime after the video ended, shots were reportedly fired into the crowd.
A second video that appears to have been shot in the aftermath shows two men lying motionless on the road. Other people are seen taking pictures of the bodies and pools of blood spilling down the sidewalk.
Witnesses told HRW that three people were killed by Ivorian security forces who opened fire. The government has promised to open an investigation, but Ouattara, who sat down for an exclusive interview with CNN, has already made a decision.
“This is a lie,” he says. “I had given strict instructions to the armed forces not to use weapons, and no one fired at the armed forces.” The president says a protester with a small gun was the culprit, although no one was arrested.
Jim Wormington, the HRW investigator who wrote a detailed report on election-related violence in Ivory Coast, says it is “clearly premature” for the president to dismiss the charge. He tells CNN that he welcomes the investigation, but sounds skeptical, adding, “Ouattara doesn’t really have a track record of holding people accountable for political violence.”
The deadly shooting ended a bloody few months for one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, which has enjoyed relative peace and stability for nearly a decade.
Officially, 85 people were killed in the violence surrounding the elections in October. Hundreds more have been injured, while the United Nations says more than 15,000 Ivorians have fled the country in fear of a return to the civil war that contributed to Ouattara’s rise to power at all.
And while partisan and ethnic tensions have since eased in recent weeks, international observers are concerned that relative calm is at the expense of Ivory Coast’s already fragile democracy. Since independence from France in 1960, the Ivorians have never witnessed the peaceful democratic transfer of power.
Erosion of democracy
The US-based Carter Center, which dispatched a team of election observers, noted “serious concerns about restrictions on civil liberties, freedom of expression and the right to vote and be elected.” According to the first assessment, these problems “could lead to a decline in democracy that could extend beyond national borders”.
The opposition’s outrage is centered around Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term, as the constitution limits presidents to just two. “Unfortunately it was a decision I had to make,” Ouattara explains to CNN from his luxurious presidential palace in Abidjan. He says he had no intention of fleeing, but when his chosen successor died unexpectedly, he had no choice. “I am glad I made a decision today because if I had not been a candidate the country would have been confused.”
When asked if he understood why many Ivorian and opponents are upset by the move, the US-trained president says no.
“No, I think they know they can’t win and they want to take power without elections. They aren’t Democrats, it’s that simple,” he said.
“I’m not trying to be George Washington,” he added. “I don’t intend to use that many terms, but it is important for my country and for myself to be in the presidential chair at this particular moment, with all the challenges facing my country,” he says.
While the Ivory Coast’s highest court cleared the way for Ouattara to run for re-election, an election committee banned 40 others from challenging him. The president says it is better to only allow candidates with strong support and legitimate party support, citing other African countries that also limit the number of candidates.
“Let me tell you, democracy doesn’t mean someone has to flee,” he says.
But a senior figure in the Ivorian legal system, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity, reiterates persistent complaints from the opposition that Ouattara stacked the supposedly independent election commission with his friends – just like the previous president.
“The committee is a committee that is only accountable to the government,” the source said. “They lack independence, they are bound to power.”
Yacouba Doumbia, chairman of the Ivorian Human Rights Movement, tells CNN that his country’s judicial system is also barely independent.
“On paper we have laws that if they were applied effectively we would be in a democratic country; unfortunately, in practice, neither the party in power nor the opposition make us feel like we are in a democratic country “, he says.
Opposition leaders arrested
Among the presidential candidates excluded from participation were former President Laurent Gbagbo, recently acquitted of war crimes, and Guillaume Soro, the ex-rebel leader who once helped to forcibly remove Gbagbo from office. Soro was Prime Minister of Ouattara until recently, but is now in exile.
Those who were allowed to run boycotted the poll, calling on their supporters to protest instead of vote. Then they set up a parallel government to organize new elections. One presidential candidate was arrested, the other was grounded. Amnesty International says neither of them had access to lawyers.
Ouattara, however, denies this and defends the actions of his government.
“Suppose Donald Trump decides to form a government because Biden won the election. He would be sent to prison right away. This is what we do in Ivory Coast,” he says.
From Paris, Soro took to Facebook to call on the military to “look at yourself in the mirror of your soul and conscience and take action to stop the killings.” It was a statement that Ouattara described as calling for a coup d’état, calling Soro “ a little crazy. ”
Soro tells CNN that he has never called for violence or a military coup – only for government officials to join the parallel government.
“My goal, my goal and my will was to call on the military to stop the massacre, to avoid the civil war to [pro-government] militias. Yes, that was the point of my speech, “he says.” I did not ask them to carry out a coup. “
Whatever the intention, the call to action was not well received in France.
“His presence in our territory is undesirable as long as he behaves in this way,” Macron told Pan-African news magazine Jeune Afrique in an interview. “As much as we can welcome freedom fighters and anyone who is threatened into their homes, we are not meant to protect activists trying to destabilize a country.”
Soro says he left France of his own accord in November and is now in Brussels. He says he is confident that he will be the next president. “It’s my turn. That’s my fate,” he told CNN via video call.
Ouattara said he has already given Gbagbo an olive branch, issued him a passport and told CNN that he is willing to pardon him for a separate conviction.
“I don’t understand why the French authorities can allow Mr. Ouattara to violate the constitution. In America, can you imagine that former President Obama decided to run for a third term in your country? ” Soro asks. “We feel abandoned by the international community … they are only interested in business. Democracy, or not democracy, it’s not a problem.”
Kobi Annan, a regional analyst from Ghana, says democracy is being sacrificed in the name of stability.
“With a relatively recent case of civil war … in the country, and before the election, there was a real possibility of going back to that, I think it was considered a little better to just accept what is and what people know. , ” he says.
In other words, the world will tolerate democratic erosion in Ivory Coast as long as there is peace.
None of Côte d’Ivoire’s problems seems to ring any major alarm bells in the international community, not even in France, which still has strong ties to its former colony. Macron has reluctantly supported Ouattara’s re-election, saying he pushed him to make peace with his rivals.
Thomas-Diego Badia, Li-Lian Ahlskog Hou and Sebastian Shukla contributed to this story.