Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Coronavirus and Africa – Towards a Postponement of the Presidential Election in Ivory Coast?

Coronavirus and Africa – Towards a Postponement of the Presidential Election in Ivory Coast?
 Baudelaire Mieu
Ivorian journalist

The number of people infected with Covid-19 is rising sharply in Ivory Coast, which is now one of the most affected countries on the African continent with 879 confirmed, 287 recovered and 10 deaths. The first case of coronavirus was registered in mid-March and a few days later, President Ouattara declared a state of health emergency, the introduction of a curfew and a response plan against the disease. The situation is of particular concern in Abidjan, which accounts for 90% of all cases in the country. How may the health situation evolve? What measures have been put in place? What are the economic and political consequences given the upcoming presidential election due to be held in October? Baudelaire Mieu, an Ivorian journalist working for several media, including Jeune Afrique and Bloomberg News, answers our questions.

What is the current health situation in Ivory Coast? How might it evolve in the coming weeks?

The current health situation is quite worrying. We are witnessing a vertiginous rise in cases of coronavirus contamination that seems to have taken the authorities by surprise. The first case appeared on March 11, and we register 879 cases as of April 20. We are therefore witnessing, in a bit over a month, an acceleration of the spread of the disease. Moreover, these figures should be put into perspective because only people with symptoms are currently being tested in Ivory Coast. In reality, the number of infected people could be much higher.

The situation is particularly serious in Abidjan, where a "generalized epidemic" may unfold as the city alone accounts for more than 90% of cases recorded in the country. The challenge for the authorities is to accelerate their response in order to cope with the peak of the epidemic expected in two to three weeks' time. Authorities want to be prepared and to contain the epidemic by that time.

What is the government's strategy to combat the epidemic?

The government's first steps were taken on March 16 and consisted of firm instructions to respect social distancing and the prohibition of gatherings. On March 23, President Ouattara announced eight additional measures, including a curfew between 9pm and 5am, a state of health emergency, as well as a response plan against the disease amounting to 95 billion CFA francs, (approximately €145 million). Ivory Coast has already announced that it does not have the full budget and will have to call on the country’s financial partners to fill the funding gap. There lies the main difficulty in implementing the plan.

The plan is divided into several phases, the first of which plans to spend 28 billion CFA francs on medication, ventilators, gloves, surgical masks and any other necessary equipment. The second phase provides for the construction of 10 early screening centres in every district of Abidjan, a number which could increase depending on need and capacity. The city of Abidjan is currently under lockdown and is cut off from the rest of the country. While it is permitted to move about the city, leaving it requires a specific pass indicating valid reasons. Nevertheless, the city’s inhabitants keep on trying to get around these measures by deceiving the authorities. The population does not seem to have fully grasped the scale of the disease: non-food markets remain open, and one-metre distances between individuals are not respected in public spaces.

The government has an ambitious plan, but it will only be able to cope with the disease if it is carried out on time, which is still very uncertain.

The third step in the fight against Covid-19 was the announcement made by the Prime Minister on March 31 which introduced social measures amounting to 1,700 billion CFA francs to complement the strategy announced by the Head of State. These social measures are aimed at helping the most disadvantaged sections of society. They take the form of food donations in particular, as well as subsidies for the payment of electricity and water bills. Measures to support the economy have also been announced, including 500 billion CFA francs for various sectors.

The government has an ambitious plan. However, it will only be able to cope with the disease if it is carried out on time, a condition which remains highly uncertain. 

Is the healthcare system resilient enough to cope with the epidemic?

The Ivorian healthcare system is quite resilient and is one of the most efficient systems in the region. When the Ebola epidemic spread to the continent, Ivory Coast, thanks to its healthcare system, did not detect any contamination in the country. The authorities are now relying on this experience to combat Covid-19. Ivory Coast also has eminent doctors in epidemiology and can rely on a highly efficient healthcare staff. Finally, between 2011 and 2019, major investments were made in the healthcare sector, helping to considerably strengthen the healthcare system.

If the country succeeds in acquiring the necessary equipment to combat this virus, it will be able to cope with the pandemic. Nevertheless, one of the country's greatest challenges is its access to ventilators. Abidjan has about 20 of them, which is not enough. An urgent order for an additional 20 has been placed. Another challenge is the rapid deployment of the new testing centres and the operational ability of the five health facilities in Abidjan and its suburbs that have been chosen to test patients. Targets set for the number of beds are progressive. The aim is to initially reach 500 beds, then 1,500, and eventually 2,500 throughout the country.

What will the economic repercussions of the coronavirus in Ivory Coast be?

Economically, the impact is disastrous. Ivory Coast is expected to lose 3 points in growth according to the Prime Minister.

Initially, the decline in growth had been estimated at 1.5 points, however with the acceleration of the contagion, the impact has increased. Growth, which was expected to be around 7.5% of GDP, is now expected to only reach around 4% of GDP.

The situation is also very complicated in terms of public finances. Exports from China, (Ivory Coast's third largest economic partner), have fallen drastically, therefore directly impacting the country's tax and customs revenues, which adds to the loss of 3 points of growth. This should lead the government to carry out an amending bill for its 2020 budget, which seems very ambitious.

Exports from China, Ivory Coast's third largest economic partner, have fallen drastically, therefore directly impacting the country's tax and customs revenues.

And this doesn’t include the effects on the informal economy, which accounts for 60% of the Ivorian economy. The repercussions are already being felt, and people are struggling to make ends meet despite government action. Indeed, the measures announced will not be enough to help informal sector workers who live on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, the resilience of the Ivorian economy should be an asset in coping with the effects of the crisis, with a view to very rapid recovery as soon as the epidemic ends.

What might be the crisis’ political consequences, particularly on the presidential election scheduled for October this year?

The first impact will be the postponement of the election by a few months, probably to 2021, which the authorities are already considering, even if no official announcement has been made yet. The process of registering applicants for identity cards, a procedure required to vote, is currently at a standstill. It is unlikely to have more than 500,000 registered Ivorians. On May 15 the electoral revision process is supposed to begin, and in August, the provisional list of voters is normally published. This timetable will be difficult to follow in the current context.

Today, the main priority is political consensus. This crisis emerged in a context of tensions between the opposition, which challenges constitutional reform of the electoral code, and the government, which supports this reform. The President announced his intention to legislate by ordinance as the reform did not come to an end, therefore prompting opponents to file a complaint to the African Court of Human Rights, based in Tanzania. The verdict was to be delivered at the end of March, but has been postponed due to the epidemic.

While it is now a near certainty that the election will not be held in October, one unknown remains: will the postponement of the elections cause an institutional crisis in the country?

Moreover, even before the epidemic reached the country, the main opposition parties, the Front populaire ivoirien and the Parti démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire, were calling behind the scenes to discuss the postponement of the election, because they felt that no guarantees were in place to ensure the transparency of the elections. Such a scenario would risk plunging Ivory Coast back into a political crisis, such as the one faced by the country in 2010-2011. The government nevertheless persevered with its intention of keeping the election on schedule.

Positive signals towards national unity have nevertheless emerged since the beginning of the crisis. All parties have suspended their political activities and qualified opponents (doctors, economists) have offered their assistance to the government.

But discussions regarding the postponement of the presidential election are not open to the opposition for the time being, and remain concentrated within the government. While it is now a near certainty that the election will not be held in October, one element remains unknown: will the postponement of the elections cause an institutional crisis in the country?

What are your recommendations to the decision-making bodies and the Ivorian people?

To decision-making bodies, I recommend transparency at each stage of the plan’s implementation in order to avoid suspicion on the part of the population. This is not the case at the moment, and it has already led to several incidents in recent days, including three in Abidjan. The authorities in charge of the fight against the virus have admitted a "lack of pedagogy" on their part. As part of the deployment of the 10 or so testing centres, the government has faced fierce hostility from people in the ‘Red Roof’ district, a suburb of the greater Yopougon area, North of Abidjan, who were convinced the government was setting up this site to spread the disease by making them live alongside infected people. The incident lasted 24 hours, spreading to other parts of the city in the following days. Another difficulty in recent days has been that the people of Bangolo, in the West of the country, have stood firmly against the delivery of medicines to a hospital.

These incidents show the psychosis and frigidity of the population, which can be avoided if the government communicates more openly and widely, through several channels: 

  • local authorities such as mayors, regional councillors, prefects and sub-prefects who can rely on traditional and religious leaders to reach the population more quickly;
  • public broadcasting media, which covers more than 90% of the territory of Ivory Coast;
  • private press which, despite political sensitivities, is united in this context and conveying health messages; 
  • and lastly, social media channels, a useful channel because of the high mobile network in Ivory Coast, whose very young population is particularly well connected.

As far as the population is concerned, people must show civic-mindedness and discipline in the face of the virus. They must respect the government's instructions – similar to those of many other countries, in Africa and elsewhere – and apply barrier gestures. Above all, trust the government: there must be a sacred union around the government in order to face this challenge and defeat the disease.



Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English