Vote on Ivory Coast's new constitution may not heal old wounds

October 28, 2016 9:23 AM EDT

People walk past a campaign billboard of Ivory Coast's ruling party ahead of the referendum for a new constitution, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Luc Gnago


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By Joe Bavier

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara hopes Sunday's referendum on a new constitution will finally turn the page on years of crisis and bloodshed.

But as he scrutinized newspaper front pages pinned up at a roadside in the commercial capital Abidjan, Brice Bosse, 44, wasn't buying it.

"I don't think this referendum should happen," said the construction worker. "They rushed this through, and no one even knows what's in it."

Ivorians, along with the investors who have poured into French-speaking West Africa's largest economy since its civil war ended in 2011, crave stability.

But rights groups and diplomats say a process that could have helped heal a deeply divided society has instead rushed out a document that few Ivorians have had time to read, much less debate.

"It looks like a fait accompli," said one Abidjan-based diplomat. "You can say what you like about the text, but the process could have been more transparent. It's a missed opportunity."

The authorities say they have respected the legal timetable for the referendum process, and that a vote on the constitution must be held before legislative elections in December.

Opposition groups are boycotting the vote, accusing Ouattara of tailoring the text to consolidate his power.

And with no public debate, many on both sides are falling back on adversarial positions that caused nearly a decade of bloodshed and economic stagnation.

"This constitution formalizes the colonization of a big part of our country by people who have come from somewhere else," Innocent Anaki Kobena, a minister under former President Laurent Gbagbo, told a crowd in Abidjan's Port Bouet neighborhood on Wednesday.

Most of his audience were Gbagbo supporters whose refusal to accept Ouattara's 2010 election win sparked a war that killed over 3,000. Gbagbo is now in The Hague, on trial for crimes against humanity.

"LIKE A VOLCANO"

The constitution drafted under military rule after a 1999 coup has been at the heart of Ivory Coast's prolonged crisis.

It said presidential candidates must have both parents be Ivorian - a deliberate swipe at northerners, many of whom, like Ouattara, have family ties that straddle the borders with Burkina Faso and Mali. It was used to disqualify him from poll in 2000.

The new constitution scraps that rule - only one parent must be Ivorian, it says. It also creates a post of vice president and a senate.

Rights groups are worried that it allows future changes to go ahead with a two thirds majority in parliament, a body now heavily dominated by Ouattara's allies.

"If a president has a majority in parliament, he can do whatever he likes with the constitution. That, for us, is problematic," said Nathalie Kouakou Yao N'Guessan, the head of Amnesty International in Ivory Coast.

Civil society groups lobbied for a delay of the vote on the text, which was drafted behind closed doors. They were rebuffed.

So by voting day, Ivorians will have had just two and a half weeks to consider the proposed 184-article charter.

Human Rights Watch this week accused the authorities of clamping down on opposition to the constitution by closing newspapers, breaking up demonstrations, detaining political leaders and blocking their access to state media.

Government spokesman Bruno Kone denied all the accusations.

Brice Bosse fears the referendum will only deepen divisions between Ivorians. He plans to stay at home on Sunday.

"Just because no one's shooting doesn't mean the war is over," he said. "It's like the fire from a volcano. The fact it's under the surface doesn't mean it's not there."

(Editing by Tim Cocks and Andrew Roche)



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