YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Bishops in the Ivory Coast have expressed worry over the “climate of fear” in the West African nation as it prepares for elections this October.
The bishops made their comments after their 114th plenary assembly, where they spoke of the failed promises of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and National Commission for Reconciliation and Compensation of Victims, which was instituted after a political crisis following the 2010 elections.
“Unfortunately, the results of their work have not been acted upon. Not surprisingly, resentments have resurfaced,” the bishops said.
Ivory Coast erupted into civil war in 2002 and remained divided into a rebel-controlled north and loyalist south until a 2007 peace deal.
The current president, Alassane Ouattara, came to power when then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down during the 2010 vote. Over 3,000 people died in the political violence.
(Gbagbo was acquitted by the International Criminal Court last year of crimes related to the violence.)
On Dec. 23, 2019, Ouattara’s government issued an arrest warrant for Guillaume Soro, his chief rival in the upcoming elections, raising fears of a repeat of a violently contested vote.
“We archbishops and bishops of the Ivory Coast, concerned about the socio-political situation that prevails on the eve of the general elections in our country, address this message as a logical continuation of the one issued in June 2019, entitled ‘Let us avoid another war’,” the message continued.
“Not surprisingly, resentments have re-emerged, among other things, through mutinies, inter-communal conflicts that have resulted in loss of life. These conflicts have shown how hearts are not yet soothed and that everything can explode at any moment. Especially with the weapons used in these clashes which reveal that the disarmament process so desired after the post-election crisis has not come to an end,” the bishops said.
The bishops were referencing 2017 military mutinies that shook the very foundations of the country, as well as the inter-ethnic conflicts that left more than a dozen people dead in May 2019.
“Progressively a climate of fear and terror is taking hold in our country,” the bishops wrote, and warned that for peace to return to Ivory Coast, “the next elections must be transparent, credible and peaceful for all to accept the results as an expression of the will of Ivorians.”
The country’s social divide has been worsened by political parties now split in several entities.
“Yesterday’s allies have become adversaries and even enemies today. Relationships are tinged with resentment, or revenge… Gradually a climate of fear and terror is taking hold in our country, and we have a widespread sense of the threat and deployment of force.”
The bishops issued four recommendations they said could be key to the organization of a free, fair and credible election in October.
The church leaders said the first pre-condition must be reconciliation, which they insisted requires the return of all exiles with guarantees of security and reintegration, the release of all political prisoners and opinion leaders, without exception, and the release of frozen assets.
The second demand was for “consultation and consensus” factoring in the realities and legitimate aspirations of all political actors and the opinions of the international community.
They called for a re-launch of dialogue between political actors and civil society, as well as “the periodic national consultation,” noting that if these were carried out “in transparency and respect for differences, they can bring us a renewed energy and constructive fraternity.”
The third condition, the bishops said, must be “the establishment and consolidation of the rule of law which implies respect for the Constitution, so that no one nurtures the intention or will to manipulate the people, texts or institutions that will be involved in the electoral process.”
They called on Ouattara to guarantee total independence for the country’s independent Electoral Commission (IEC). They warned that the Commission, as an arbitrator in the elections, must not also become a “player” in the vote, warning that would make the electoral outcomes become a clear recipe for violence.
“On the other hand, if the referee is only an arbitrator, with an independence that suffers no doubt, the competition ends peacefully. This is why the role of arbitrator assigned to the IEC requires its total independence,” the bishops said.
Finally, the nation’s Catholic hierarchy called for “an open presidential election, which guarantees equal opportunities for all candidates wishing to run.”
Amid the political tension, the bishops said they had a simple role: To build bridges, not walls.
“The bishop, minister of reconciliation, cannot accept the lack of common will of the antagonists; he cannot accept the sacrifice of human lives in the calculation of special interests,” said Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo, the president of the bishops’ conference on Jan. 14.
“The Church intends to face (the trials), in truth, and to make her contribution, by destroying barriers between people and building bridges between them,” Bessi Dogbo said.
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