His rivals have been arrested or exiled, but Ivorian President insists: 'They're not democrats'
On November 9, a group of men gathered in a dusty town in southern Ivory Coast that sits at the junction of two major highways. The group walked onto the road to block traffic to protest the re-election of Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
A cellphone video obtained by Human Rights Watch and shared with CNN by HRW showed the protesters in the town of Elibou chanting and waving flags in front of a line of security forces in riot gear. Sometime after the video ends, shots were allegedly fired into the crowd.
A second video that appears to be taken in the aftermath shows two men lying motionless on the road. Other people are seen taking photos of the bodies and the pools of blood running down the pavement.
Witnesses told HRW that three people were killed by Ivorian security forces who opened fire. The government has pledged to investigate, but Ouattara, who sat down for an exclusive interview with CNN, has already made up his mind.
"This is a lie," he says. "I had given strict instruction to the Defence Forces not to use guns, and no one shot among the Defence Forces." The president says a protester with a small pistol was to blame, though no one has been arrested.
Jim Wormington, the HRW researcher who wrote a detailed report into election-related violence in Ivory Coast, says that it's "clearly premature" for the president to reject the accusation. He tells CNN he welcomes the investigation, but sounds a note of skepticism, adding: "Ouattara doesn't really have a track record of holding people accountable for political violence."
The deadly shooting capped off a bloody couple of months for one of Africa's fastest-growing economies, which had enjoyed relative peace and stability for almost a decade.
Officially, 85 people have been killed in violence surrounding October's election. Hundreds more have been injured, while the United Nations says that more than 15,000 Ivorians fled the country in fear of a return to the civil war that helped bring Ouattara to power in the first place.
And while the partisan and ethnic tensions have since simmered down in recent weeks, international observers worry that the comparative calm comes at the expense of Ivory Coast's already-fragile democracy. Since independence from France in 1960, Ivorians have never witnessed the peaceful democratic transfer of power.
Erosion of democracy
The US-based Carter Center, which sent a team of election observers, found "serious concerns about restrictions on civil liberties, freedom of expression, and the right to vote and be elected." Its initial assessment also says those problems "may lead to a decline in democracy that could extend beyond the country's borders."
Opposition outrage is centered on Ouattara's decision to run for a third term in office, since the constitution limits presidents to only two. "Unfortunately, it was a decision I had to assume," Ouattara explains to CNN from his plush presidential palace in Abidjan. He says he didn't plan to run, but when his chosen successor died unexpectedly, he had no choice. "It's a decision I am glad I took today, because the country would have been in a mess if I had not been a candidate."
Asked if he understood why many Ivorians and opponents are upset by the move, the US-educated president says no.
"No, I think they know they could not win and they want to grab power without an election. They're not democrats, it's as easy as that," he said.
"I'm not trying to be a George Washington," he added. "I don't plan to do so many terms, but it's important for my country and for myself, to be in the presidential chair at this specific moment, with all the challenges my country has to face," he says.
While Ivory Coast's highest court cleared the way for Ouattara to run for re-election, an electoral commission barred forty others from challenging him. The president says it's better to only allow candidates with strong support and legitimate party backing to run -- citing other African countries which also limit the number of candidates.
"Let me tell you, democracy does not mean that anyone should come and run," he says.
But one senior figure in the Ivorian justice system, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity, echoes persistent complaints by the opposition that Ouattara has stacked the supposedly independent electoral commission with his friends -- just like the last president.
"The commission is a commission which only answers to the government," the source says. "They lack independence, they are beholden to the power."
Yacouba Doumbia, president of the Ivorian Human Rights Movement, tells CNN that his country's judicial system is hardly independent either.
"On paper, we have laws that if they were applied effectively, we would find ourselves in a democratic country; unfortunately in practice neither the party in power nor the opposition give us the sense that we are in a democratic country," he says.
Opposition leaders arrested
Among those presidential candidates barred from running were the former president Laurent Gbagbo, recently acquitted of war crimes and Guillaume Soro, the ex-rebel leader who once helped oust Gbagbo from office by force. Until recently, Soro served as Ouattara's prime minister, but is now in exile.
Those who were allowed to run boycotted the poll and called on their supporters to protest rather than vote. Afterwards, they set up a parallel government to organize a new election. One presidential candidate was arrested, the other was put under house arrest. Amnesty International says neither had access to lawyers.
Ouattara, however, denies that, and defends his government's actions.
"Suppose that Donald Trump decided to form a government because Biden has won the election. He would be sent to jail right away. This is what we're doing in Cote d'Ivoire," he says.
From Paris, Soro took to Facebook to call the military to "look at yourselves in the mirror of your soul and conscience and act to stop the killings." It was a statement that Ouattara described as a call for a coup, branding Soro "a bit crazy."
Soro tells CNN he never called for violence, or for a military coup -- only for government officials to join the parallel government.
"My aim, my goal and my will, was to appeal to the army to stop the massacre, to avoid the civil war to stop the [pro-government] militias. Yes, that was the meaning of my speech," he says. "I didn't ask them to make a coup." Whatever its intended meaning, the call to action was not well received in France.
"His presence is not desired in our territory as long as he behaves in this way," Macron told the pan-African news magazine Jeune Afrique in an interview. "As much as we can welcome freedom fighters and anyone who is threatened in their home, we are not intended to protect activists who seek to destabilize a country."
Soro says he left France on his own accord in November and is now in Brussels. He says he is confident he will be the next president. "It's my turn. That's destiny," he tells CNN by video call.
Ouattara said he has already extended an olive branch to Gbagbo, issuing him a passport and telling CNN he is willing to give him a pardon for a separate conviction.
"I can't fathom why French authorities can allow Mr. Ouattara to violate the constitution. Can you imagine in America if former President Obama decided to run for a third term in your country?" asks Soro. "We feel abandoned by the international community.... they're only interested in business. Democracy, or no democracy, it's not a problem."
Kobi Annan, a Ghana-based regional analyst, says democracy is being sacrificed in the name of stability.
"With a relatively recent instance of civil war... in the country, and before the election, there being a real possibility of returning to that, I think it was kind of seen as 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 Ivory Coast's problems seem to be setting off 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 and says he has pushed him to make peace with his rivals.