Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara has met his main political rival for talks on ending election-related violence that fuelled fears the country could plunge into civil conflict.
The meeting on Wednesday, less than two weeks after Ouattara’s disputed re-election, come as the government updated the death toll from the recent unrest to 85.
Ouattara, 78, and Henri Konan Bedie, an 86-year-old former president, arrived at an upmarket hotel in the commercial hub of Abidjan several hours after the much-awaited meeting was announced by the government.
Their talks are the first since presidential elections on October 31 resulted in a bitter standoff, raising concerns of protracted instability in Francophone West Africa’s biggest economy and the world’s top cocoa producer.
Ouattara was declared victor with more than 94 percent of the vote, which was boycotted by the main opposition. The president’s opponents say he breached the country’s two-term presidential limits, but Ouattara says constitutional amendments introduced in 2016 effectively reset the countdown clock on the two-term limit and allow him to run again.
The opposition has refused to acknowledge the results of the election, launched what it calls a campaign of civil disobedience and pledged to set up a transitional government to replace Ouattara.
Several opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, the opposition’s spokesman, have been arrested, and the homes of others are being blockaded by security forces.
Deadly violence, often tinged by ethnic rivalry, erupted in August after Ouattara formally announced his controversial bid for a third term in office.
Communications Minister Sidi Tiemoko Toure told reporters that the official toll now stood at 85 dead and 484 injured, many of them in the southeast of the country.
Of the fatalities, 34 occurred before the election, 20 on voting day and 31 afterwards. Toure added that 225 people had been arrested, of whom 45 were in custody and 167 had been charged.
For many Ivorians, painful memories have stirred 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.
The face-to-face between Ouattara and Bedie follows increasing calls from the United Nations (UN), the European Union, former colonial power France and Ivory Coast’s neighbours for efforts to ease the tension.
More than 8,000 people have streamed out of the country to seek refuge in neighbouring states, especially Liberia, the UN’s refugee agency said on Tuesday. More than half of them are children, many of whom have arrived unaccompanied or separated from their parents.
Ouattara, in a speech on Monday, proposed a meeting with Bedie, whom he respectfully described as his “elder”.
In its response, Bedie’s Democratic Party of Ivory Coast on Wednesday set down several conditions for such talks, including the lifting of the home blockades and the end of judicial procedures against arrested leaders.
The blockade around Bedie’s home had been lifted as of the early afternoon on Wednesday. However, fellow opposition leader Assoa Adou told AFP news agency that a blockade was still in place around his home.
Ouattara and Bedie have been central figures in Ivorian politics for decades, with each claiming the mantel of the late Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the highly popular first post-independence president.
The venue for their meeting, the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, has historic resonance.
Also known as the Hotel du Golf, it was where Ouattara, as president-elect, set up his headquarters during the 2010-11 crisis, when the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after being defeated at the ballot box.
Ouattara’s erstwhile allies at the hotel included Bedie, who fell out with Ouattara in 2018.