Côte d’Ivoire: President Alassane Ouattara shakes up his government

By Vincent Duhem
Posted on Friday, 25 June 2021 13:20

Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara with his prime minister Patrick Achi and defence minister Tene Birahima Ouattara at the presidential palace in Abidjan on 17 April 2021. Luc Gnago/REUTERS

Shaken by the loss of his two prime ministers, Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara has decided to introduce some changes. For instance, his brother, the defence minister, and his chief of staff will play a more important role than ever.

Côte d’Ivoire’s 79-year-old President Alassane Ouattara (ADO) was forced to change after experiencing the sudden loss of Amadou Gon Coulibaly (AGC) in July 2020 and then Hamed Bakayoko in March 2021. The deaths of Coulibaly and Bakayoko – two pillars of his system who tragically died within one year of each other – have delivered a blow with serious consequences.

The Ivorian head of state liked to say that AGC was his intellectual double. Over the course of more than 30 years of companionship, they had learned to work together. One could even say that these two technocrats spoke the same language. Once ADO appointed AGC as prime minister in January 2017, all dossiers went through the latter’s office or that of his many advisers.

Amadou Gon Coulibaly, Alassane Ouattara’s double

AGC was also the cornerstone of the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP), a party that had been tailor-made for him. And its leaders, who were indebted to him, accompanied him in his quest for power.

Bakayoko’s death also had an impact on the head of state. Before his demise, he had served as minister of interior, then of defence, and finally prime minister after AGC’s death. This golden boy was part of ADO’s inner circle and indispensable in the management of certain security issues.

He was also charged with sensitive, often secret missions. “The President recognised Hamed’s qualities. However, he wasn’t as attached to him as he had been to AGC, who had been his closest collaborator for nearly 30 years. And once he became prime minister, there were many political rivalries within the RHDP. The climate today is much more peaceful,” says one of ADO’s old friends.

ADO also lost the support of several other figures within his entourage, those who had refused to endorse AGC as his successor. They included former vice-president Daniel Kablan Duncan and former foreign minister Marcel Amon-Tanoh; Mamadi Diané, a former special adviser who was as discreet as he was important; and Sidiki Diakité, former interior minister, both of whom have passed away. Until he resigned from government in March 2020, Amon Tanoh had backed AGC and Téné Birahima Ouattara, one of the members of the ‘troika’, the group around which everything revolved at the presidency.

The brother’s shadow

Therefore, his entire system had to be rebuilt. The head of state, who was traumatised by the Duncan experience, still has no intentions to appoint a new vice-president. As a result, he now relies on a quartet: prime minister Patrick Achi, his younger brother Téné Birahima Ouattara, his chief of staff Fidèle Sarassoro and the presidency’s new secretary-general Abdourahmane Cissé.

Achi is in permanent contact with the president of the Republic. Every week – especially before the council of ministers’ meeting which is now held every two weeks – ADO meets with Achi, Sarassoro and Cissé. The prime minister has the upper hand on economic issues and has also been entrusted with certain sensitive issues such as managing Laurent Gbagbo’s return. Bilateral relations and defence, on the other hand, remain the preserve of the head of state, who is supported on these issues by Téné Birahima Ouattara.

The shadow of the one nicknamed ‘Photocopy’ hangs over the prime minister. ADO has a lot of confidence in his younger brother, as well as his wife Dominique – who is extremely influential – and his niece Masséré Touré. The latter, who is the wife of construction minister Bruno Koné, acts as the presidency’s director of communication during most of the head of state’s meetings. And she has a say in the presidential strategy.

Téné Birahima Ouattara, brother of the Ivorian president © RR / Téné Birahima Ouattara (Facebook)

Téné Birahima, who served as minister of presidential affairs until March 2021, had already held numerous positions within his brother’s government. He supervised intelligence services, security issues and sometimes acted as a discreet emissary and mediator. He has been in charge of defence since Bakayoko’s death, and his power has increased considerably. “Everything revolves around Photocopy. As soon as a minister has a problem, they turn to him,” says a government official. Although he is usually very discreet, he is now exposed. This is a novelty, both for the main person concerned and for ADO, who does not like it when people talk about his family, especially to the media.

Sarassoro, who has been in the presidency for five years, is expected to acquire more responsibilities. He already combines his role as chief of staff with that of secretary of the Conseil National de Sécurité (CNS) and is in charge of certain technical dossiers. He may also end up playing a more important role within the RHDP. At ADO’s request, he ran in the legislative elections of his hometown of Sinematiali (North), where he secured an easy victory. This was a way for the president to bring new figures from within the Senufo community to the forefront.

Abdourahmane Cissé and Claude Sahi

39-year-old Cissé joined the head of state’s inner circle last April and is in charge of maintaining a link between the presidency and the government. ADO is pleased with his profile as he is a technocrat, a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique near Paris, and a former investment banker at Goldman Sachs International. From 2012, Cissé was an advisor on public finance, special advisor on economic and financial affairs, and then budget minister. He is now the presidency’s secretary-general and is at the heart of the system.

ADO has also decided to appoint Claude Sahi as his chief of staff. The position, which was previously held by minister Sidi Tiémoko Touré, had been vacant for several months. Sahi was one of Ibrahim Coulibaly’s former close associates and a pillar of the ministry of interior, where he was the director of political affairs after Bakayoko recruited him in 2014. “Sahi had been pushing to be interior minister since Sidiki Diakité’s death. By appointing him, ADO benefits from his vast knowledge of the administration. His entourage’s lack of knowledge within this domain created slight blockages,” says a source within the presidency.

ADO, who is adept at geopolitics, attaches particular importance to certain posts, such as that of prime minister and the presidency’s secretary-general. He is also very careful about who he places his trust in. Above all, he rarely makes decisions in a hurry. He is cold and calculating, as he observes, analyses and then decides.

Beyond individuals, have the deaths of AGC and Bakayoko forced the head of state to change his way of governing? According to one of his close friends, “it is still too early to say”, even though it has been nearly 10 months since the presidential election. Although he has always actively presided over the country, AGC’s absence forces him to delegate less than before.

The former senior civil servant is, in any case, as meticulous as ever. He gets up early and goes to his office on the first floor of the presidential palace, once he’s made his first calls, answered a few emails and listened to the news on radio. He expects a lot from his staff. In fact, as soon as the new government was formed, he put pressure on his ministers to appoint their chiefs of staff as quickly as possible, causing panic among some.

“Today he is giving himself time to see everyone at work. It’s a sort of trial period to determine the level of competence and confidence,” says one of his old friends. Furthermore, Achi has been saying to those close to him that “the boss is demanding,” ever since he was appointed prime minister.

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