General Lassina Doumbia, keeping the Ivorian army in line
Côte d'Ivoire's recent major overhaul of military institutions and removal of former rebel leaders partly bear the mark of new chief of staff Lassina Doumbia.
On 6 March, General Lassina Doumbia suddenly saw his diary fill up. President Alassane Ouattara made more than a hundred appointments to command posts in the Ivorian army on that day. Since then, chief of staff Doumbia has been conducting a series of charge-transfer ceremonies.
These are the most significant changes to the military since the beginning of Ouattara’s second term in office. But Doumbia has stirred up his fair share of hornets’ nests, and he doesn’t do half measures. In Abidjan he is described as a “big mouth” who is not afraid to say out loud what many people are thinking. After the attack in Grand-Bassam on 13 March 2016, when Special Forces were in the front line, he openly complained about the poor quality of equipment provided to his troops, particularly the bullet-proof vests.
Who is General Doumbia?
- The 54-year-old from Dabadougou, near Odienné in the north of the country, “has the profile to take over the army” with “more power and authority than his predecessor,” says Ivorian researcher Arthur Banga. Although he comes from the same region as General Sékou Touré, he is something of an antithesis to Touré, who devoted a large part of his career to officer training. Doumbia is a man of the field who has earned the respect of his men during operations.
- He trained at the École Militaire Préparatoire Technique de Bingerville, the Prytanée Militaire de Saint-Louis, in Senegal, and the Collège Royal de l’Enseignement Militaire Supérieur de Kenitra, in Morocco
- He took command of the army’s tactical groups at the beginning of the rebellion in 2002, and served as Toulépleu’s military prefect from 2005 to 2009 before being appointed head of the 1st Akouédo infantry battalion by Laurent Gbagbo.
- During the post-electoral crisis of 2010-2011, “Doumbia remained loyal to power, but without playing the fool,” says Banga. “When he saw that the international community recognised Ouattara, he chose realism,” continues one of his friends. This neutrality did not go unnoticed, and, at the end of the crisis, prime minister and defence minister Guillaume Soro chose him to lead the newly created Special Forces.
Doumbia subsequently experienced a meteoric rise, going from the rank of lieutenant-colonel to that of division general in a few years . “His record with Special Forces is very positive,” says Banga. “This unit and its thousand men are now the flagship of the army.”
Politics and security overlap
Doumbia’s appointment as chief of staff at the end of 2018 came at a relatively calm period in terms of security, but the political tensions between the government and Guillaume Soro were feeding a strong climate of mistrust.
Pragmatic, Doumbia is aware of the limitations of his army. After the 2017 mutinies, the authorities want to avoid further upheavals at all costs, as shown by the promotion of nearly 400 mutineers on 19 February.
Some rise, while others fall
The wave of appointments, in which soldiers who had made their careers under Gbagbo have been promoted to the detriment of former rebel leaders who had hitherto been untouchable, has fuelled speculation.
- The former comzones (bosses of rebel-held areas) Chérif Ousmane and Issiaka Ouattara (alias Wattao) left their posts as the head of the (first) battalion of parachute commandos and the Republican Guard, respectively.
- They received what are theoretically more prestigious posts – deputy chief of army staff and commander of units attached to the armed forces general staff – but are now cut off from the troops. “They are out of the operational range. It is a sign that they are not trusted,” says a Western diplomatic source.
- Other former rebels were promoted, such as Losseny Fofana, who replaces Colonel Hervé Touré (alias Vetcho), in command of the 3rd infantry battalion in Bouaké. Colonel Gaossou Koné (alias Jah Gao) has taken over the command and services battalion.
What to look out for:
“My message is one of gathering and cohesion. There was a time when trust took precedence over competence. Those days are over,” said Chief of Defence Staff Doumbia.
The government, which had been trying for several years to reduce the comzones’ influence by setting up a system of rotating posts and launching legal proceedings against some of them, seems determined to notch up a gear. “It is necessary to rebalance the army to dampen the resentments that still exist, especially among officers labelled as pro-Gbagbo. Doumbia is one of the best placed to restore their confidence,” says a senior officer.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.