Ivory Coast's Ouattara to push for new constitution if re-elected

2015-10-21 09:47
Alassane Ouattara. (File: AP)

Alassane Ouattara. (File: AP) (Rebecca Blackwell)

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Abidjan - Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said on Monday he would push for constitutional reform if he wins re-election this week to scrap a nationality clause that helped drag his west African nation into a decade-long crisis.

Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, has long been a magnet for immigrants from neighbouring countries. Ivorian nationality became a burning political issue at the heart of a 2002-2003 civil war that divided the country in two for eight years.

Ouattara himself was barred from seeking the presidency over what opponents said were his foreign origins before finally winning election in 2010, though his victory sparked a second brief civil conflict that killed more than 3 000 people.

Heavily favoured to win a second term in a presidential election on Sunday thanks to a thriving economy, Ouattara told Reuters he was determined to remove the nationalist bias from the constitution.

Symbol for exclusion

The current document, ratified in 2000 in the wake of a military coup, says presidential candidates must prove both their parents are Ivorians who were born on Ivorian soil. They must also have never claimed the citizenship of another country.

It became a symbol for exclusion for northerners, whose family ties often cross into Burkina Faso and Mali.

"We will have a new constitution because I think the current constitution is outdated. It was written during the crisis of 2000. It has too many things which are complicated," Ouattara said in an interview in the commercial capital Abidjan.

While leaders of several African nations have pushed to alter their constitutions to extend their rule in recent years, Ouattara vowed to respect Ivory Coast's two-term limit and step down in 2020 if re-elected.

"By the end of my second term I'll be 78, so there's no real reason for me to try to continue. I've worked long enough," he said. Dressed in a dark business suit, he was speaking in the well-appointed office from which he has managed his campaign.

Fighting discrimination

While Ouattara has long maintained he qualified to run under the existing constitution, the constitutional court blocked his candidacy for a 2000 poll won by ex-president Laurent Gbagbo.

Two years later, soldiers who said they were fighting discrimination against northerners staged a failed coup against Gbagbo that split the country into a rebel north and government controlled south.

Any reform of the constitution would require backing from parliament, dominated by the president's allies, and then need to be submitted to a referendum.

Ouattara, campaigned for the presidency in 2010 saying the constitution needed to be changed. However, he spent his first term focused on reviving the economy after Gbagbo's refusal to recognise his victory plunged the country into turmoil.

"We need to revisit the question of nationality ... We'll also have to see what are the roles of the Supreme Court and if we should have an electoral commission," Ouattara said.

Boom times

Having implemented a policy of heavy investment in infrastructure during his first term, Ouattara, a former senior International Monetary Fund official, has been largely credited for Ivory Coast's rapid post-war economic revival.

Economic growth has averaged around 9% over the past three years, according to government figures. The president said that an influx of new investment would push that figure into double digits from next year. The IMF has issued a more conservative average forecast of 8.4% for 2015 and 2016.

After issuing a dollar-denominated bond in each of the past two years to pay for infrastructure upgrades, Ouattara said the government was in a position to curb its Eurobond issuances.

"I think the private sector will take over. If I go to a Eurobond market now it will be to shave the debt profile," Ouattara said, pledging to keep the government debt to GDP ratio below 50 percent.

Ouattara's election opponents have accused him of seeking to use Ivory Coast's impressive growth figures to paper over what they say are failures in the realms of post-war reconciliation and justice.

His main challenger is likely to be Pascal Affi N'Guessan, the head of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front, who was jailed by Ouattara's government in the wake of the 2011 conflict. Gbagbo himself is awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court accused of crimes against humanity.

N'Guessan and other opposition candidates say little of the wealth created by the country's current economic boom has trickled down to the most vulnerable.

"Obviously there are a lot of people who are not profiting from the high rate of growth on a personal basis," Ouattara responded.

"But when you have better roads, when you have better schools, when you have better health centres, all this improves the lot of the people."

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