Moments before his sudden death, Ivory Coast’s Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly appeared upbeat as he entered a cabinet meeting.
Chosen by the governing party as its candidate in a presidential election some four months away, he had just tweeted: “To have a vision is not about short term political gains but careful planning for decades to come.”
But the 61-year-old, who returned to Ivory Coast last week after an extended medical leave in France to treat heart issues, felt unwell and was taken to hospital, where he passed away.
His death on Wednesday has created a political vacuum, plunging the country into uncertainty.
“Ivory Coast in a state of shock,” headlined the daily L’Inter. “Thunderclap,” said Soir Info. “Sledgehammer blow,” said Fraternite Matin.
The country on Friday began an official period of national mourning that will culminate with Coulibaly’s burial next week in Korhogo, his hometown in the north.
“It’s a shock for all Ivorians. Africa has lost one of its best and it’s all of Africa that it’s mourning,” said a man near a newspaper stand.
“He was in good place for the upcoming presidential election. Now, the ruling party will be in turmoil,” said another.
In March, President Alassane Ouattara had announced he would not run in October’s election after two five-year terms in office and designated Gon Coulibaly, his closest political ally, as the RHDP party’s candidate.
Now, the RHDP has been left scrambling to choose a replacement candidate.
“All options are on the table, including a new candidacy for President Ouattara,” Adama Bictogo, RHDP executive secretary, told journalists on Thursday as he arrived for a meeting of the party’s political council.
“It’s clear we have to revisit the analysis he made at the time,” Bictogo said. “The context is new,” he said.
The election is expected to be the most hotly contested since 2010, when Ouattara defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to concede defeat. The months-long standoff claimed some 3,000 lives and left divisions that linger today.
Ouattara has previously said he would prefer to hand over power to a new generation, although he also says he has the right to run again under a new constitution adopted in 2016.
The opposition disputes that he can run again, and a decision for him to stand risks uniting opponents against him.
“He has always been a unanimous choice within his own camp. But [running again] would be extremely dangerous, particularly vis-a-vis the opposition, which would find a common enemy,” said Rinaldo Depagne, International Crisis Group’s West Africa project director.
“The president must listen to his base,” but “the final decision will be his”, Bictogo said, adding that nothing should be announced before Coulibaly’s funeral.
The deadline to submit the candidate’s name is September 1.
Other options are the president’s spokesman Patrick Achi and Defence Minister Hamed Bakayoko, who stood in for Coulibaly while he was abroad for medical treatment.
Whoever is chosen will face former President Henri Konan Bedie, 86, who accuses Ouatarra of failing to address political grievances that led to the 2011 civil war.
Marie-Roger Biloa, chief executive director of the Africa International Media Group, said she expected “a lot of tensions” in the Ivory Coast ahead of October’s election.
“With this opening, all the political forces will feel that it is a signal to come up with their own ambitions,” she told Al Jazeera. “President Ouattara will say, well the constitution allows me to run again, and then we also have a former president who is 86 years old who is running.”
There also has been uncertainty about the political ambitions of Gbagbo. He has been acquitted of crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) but has been unable to return home to Ivory Coast where he still has considerable support. Prosecutors at the ICC are appealing his acquittal.
Some observers also say there is a possibility the vote could be postponed on the grounds of the coronavirus pandemic.