Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara was sworn in for a controversial third term on Monday, urging the opposition to help defuse tensions after election-related violence claimed 85 lives in the West African powerhouse.
The ceremony was attended by 13 African counterparts as well as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy — but boycotted by the opposition, as was the October 31 election that returned Ouattara to power.
“I ask all political parties to seize this new opportunity… to defuse tensions through dialogue,” the 78-year-old president said, noting publicly for the first time that legislative elections will be held in the first quarter of 2021.
Ouattara promised the creation of a national reconciliation ministry in the next government, while stressing that “violence and intolerable acts… should not go unpunished”.
It was a tacit warning to several opposition leaders who were arrested in the wake of the election, with legal proceedings over “sedition” launched against them.
But leading opposition figure Henri Konan Bedie last week proposed a “national dialogue”.
He also announced the dissolution of a rival government, the “National Transition Council”, that the opposition set up after the election, a move that landed spokesman Pascal Affi N’Guessan in jail.
Bedie, 86, a former president himself, stopped short of recognising Ouattara’s re-election with more than 94 percent of the vote.
Ouattara and his supporters had argued that a 2016 revision of the constitution reset his term counter to zero, allowing him to seek a third term.
He had initially planned to step down after serving two terms, with his then prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly in pole position to succeed him.
But Ouattara changed his mind after Coulibaly unexpectedly died in July.
On Monday, Ouattara gave a nod to Coulibaly, saying: “I would have liked so much to see him in my place.”
– Memories of civil war –
Pre- and post-election violence has claimed at least 85 lives since August, with around 500 injured, according to an official toll.
For many Ivorians, the bloodletting revived painful memories of the aftermath of disputed elections in 2010.
A political standoff was followed by a brief civil war in which around 3,000 people died and an estimated 1.3 million people fled their homes.
Ouattara has asked his prime minister, Hamed Bakayoko, to resume discussions with the opposition on the composition of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI).
The opposition is demanding a reform of the body, which it accuses of bias.
In his speech on Monday, Ouattara said he would devote his third term to education and the social safety net as well as reconciliation, vowing to lift three million people out of poverty.
While the country of 25 million has enjoyed strong economic growth and the completion of several infrastructure projects under Ouattara, critics say the poorest have been left behind.
Ouattara also vowed to step up the fight against corruption, both in the government and the private sector.
In a light-hearted moment, the president spoke of his nicknames for his various counterparts attending the event — from “little brother” for Benin’s Patrice Talon, aged 62, to the “emir of the Sahel” for Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger.
But his nickname for 77-year-old Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou Nguesso, in power for 36 years, raised eyebrows: “emperor”.