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Constitutional Referendum in Ivory Coast Sparks Controversy

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara salutes while standing in a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the country's 56th Independence Day outside the presidential palace in Abidjan, Aug. 7, 2016.

Ivory Coast is headed for a constitutional referendum in October. President Alassane Ouattara backs the initiative, which would create a senate and a new post of deputy president, but the opposition does not share his enthusiasm.

One of the main reasons to reform the current constitution, Ouattara has said, is to remove a contentious article on nationality that played a role in years of civil war in the West African nation.

Ouattara's political opponents used the article on nationality to block him from several presidential elections in the past, claiming his parents were not born in Ivory Coast, and he was thus not eligible. The U.S.-trained economist was elected head of state in 2010 and took office the following year, after months of unrest involving supporters of his predecessor as president, Laurent Gbagbo.

Ivory Coast has kept its role as the world's leading producer of cocoa despite the civil war earlier in this decade, and Ouattara has since won re-election. He declared one of his main goals is to revise and update the constitution.

Unseen new charter

The text of a new national charter has not yet been released, but when the president announced details of the planned change this month - creating a new post of deputy president, and adding a senate as a second legislative branch of the government - they immediately aroused controversy.

The opposition denounced the president's proposal, saying it reflected a lack of national dialogue and consensus.

Bamba Morifere is the spokesperson for the CODE, the opposition coalition.

When you bring in a new constitution, all Ivorians should be part of the debate, he says.

"The president should follow international standards and and establish a constitutional commission," Morifere said. "It’ll take time - as much as needed - but there needs to be an in-depth debate. [Ouattara] shouldn’t try to force his way through."

The opposition spokesperson believes Ivory Coast's fragile social order is at stake.

New position, control

Ouattara said he wants the new constitution to establish the office of deputy president, since the office of the president needs to fill such a vacancy. The opposition claims his real agenda is to choose a successor.

As for the senate...

"He wants to name one-third of the senators," Morifere claims. "That’s against the separation of powers."

Civil society platform POECI has recently run several small focus groups across the country.

Priorities questioned

Spokesperson Marie Paule Kodjo says most of those who participated believe the president's new constitution is not what Ivory Coast needs now. "They believe priorities are elsewhere," she said, such as action to curb "the rising cost of living, unemployment and corruption."

Kodjo's group also emphasizes the need for a national consensus on the text of a new constitution, and is against creating new institutions that could challenge the nation's existing order.

This is necessary "given the fragility of the social fabric and the need to rationalize the expenses granted to the governing body," said Kodjo.

The civil-society organization also asked the government to communicate better on the new text, and to publish full details sooner than the minimum period required before a national referendum — just two weeks prior to a vote due to take place in October.