Personal Freedoms in Ivory Coast on the Decline Prior to Local Elections?
At the end of February, several opposition activists were arrested and convicted, reigniting the debate on free speech and freedom of assembly in the Ivory Coast, just a few months before municipal and regional elections.
Opposition groups and civil society actors are highlighting attempts to intimidate and suppress freedom of expression.
On February 24, Damana Pickass, the secretary general of the opposition African Peoples’ Party (PPA-CI), was summoned by an investigating judge for suspected involvement in an attack on a military camp in April 2021.
A gathering of a few dozen party supporters outside the judge’s office to show support for Pickass was met with a large police force, and the activists were treated aggressively, with tear gas being used and beatings administered to those wearing caps or scarves bearing Laurent Gbagbo’s image, Gbagbo being the former president who founded the party in October 2021.
Gbagbo was acquitted of his alleged role in deadly post-election violence in a trial at the International Criminal Court in 2019, following a decade in exile, most of which saw him imprisoned.
The activists were detained, tried and initially sentenced to two years in prison on March 9, with their lawyers subsequently lodging an appeal. At a hearing on March 22, the activists received a suspended prison sentence after a lengthy trial. However, Me Sylvain Tapi, one of four lawyers for the defendants, noted that the trial lacked evidence and that the activists had committed no criminal offence or act that could disturb public order.
In addition to these activists, four PPA-CI supporters were arrested for waving Russian flags during a political rally in opposition stronghold Yopougon, in northern Abidjan, also at the end of February. They were released alongside other activists following a period of legal vagueness surrounding their arrest, indictment and release, which was criticised by Me Tapi as an intimidation attempt.
Commenting on the arrests, Gbagbo, who met with supporters on March 29, stated that the activists’ detention was an attempt to discourage activism.
In response, the government has dug in its heels, with government spokesperson Amadou Coulibaly describing the PPA-CI gathering as a “wild” demonstration that had not been registered with authorities beforehand during a March 16 press briefing.
Coulibaly criticised the activists for gathering outside the investigating judge’s office, stating that the investigation should have remained secret, and he noted that the violent response to the gathering was justifiable. The spokesperson declined to comment on the four supporters accused of waving Russian flags.
The PPA-CI accused the authorities of “relentless judicial harassment” and attacks against party officials during a conference in March, citing the judicial system as acting as an extension of the ruling party. Meanwhile, Ivorian civil society activist Pulchérie Gbalet, arrested earlier in the year after calling for a “diplomatic solution” to the detention of Ivorian soldiers accused of being mercenaries in Bamako, Mali, was released five months later. Amnesty International has regularly denounced the targeting of activists in the Ivory Coast.
Political observers view these renewed tensions between supporters of Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, current president and Gbagbo’s rival in the 2010-2011 post-election crisis that left 3,000 citizens dead, with concern.
Both emphasised peace and reconciliation when Gbagbo returned in June 2021, but these opposition detentions mark a turning point, leading some to perceive them as a sign that no criticism will be tolerated.
The right to freedom of assembly is also in jeopardy; around 40 doctoral students protesting against precarious working conditions were arrested in December 2021 and sentenced to four months in prison for disturbing public order.
The run-up to the 2023 local elections, in which Gbagbo’s party will participate for the first time since 2011, is causing particular concern among political analysts.