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Côte d’Ivoire’s Ouattara: ‘My only regret is the madness of a few who are ready to do anything for power’

By Marwane Ben Yahmed
Posted on Tuesday, 28 September 2021 16:22

President Alassane Ouattara, candidate shot in 2020 (https://ado2020.ci/galerie-du-candidat/)

Côte d’Ivoire's President Alassane Ouattara speaks to us for the first time since he was re-elected in October 2020. He discusses the difficulties of the past year and the political class' need to undergo a profound transformation.

Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara (ADO) last spoke with us in March 2020. That interview seems to date back to another time, a time when the post-ADO era was being forged.

The head of state, who was 78 years old at the time, had decided to leave power and pass the baton to Amadou Gon Coulibaly (AGC), his “son” and closest collaborator for nearly 30 years. The Rassemblement des Houphouétistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP), which had been formed just a few months earlier, was lining up to support this candidacy.

Hamed Bakayoko, one of the party’s heavyweights who was close to the president, had agreed to rally behind Coulibaly and put his talents as well as his network at the service of the “Lion of Korhogo”, of whom he was so complimentary.

Appeasement

A year and a half later, this scenario, which was supposed to pave the way for tomorrow’s Côte d’Ivoire, now looks like a relic. “AGC” and “Hambak”, who died in July 2020 and March 2021 respectively, left a huge void.

ADO finally decided to run for a third term, which set the world on fire. It resulted in a nauseating electoral campaign, a high-tension election, violence and the opposition calling for either destabilisation, civil disobedience or a boycott (depending on the level of animosity felt towards the head of state). During this umpteenth political crisis and its resulting fiery consequences, the ghosts of the December 2010-April 2011 period haunted the Ebrié Lagoon.

After these sinister events, reason and appeasement finally prevailed. ADO was re-elected, Laurent Gbagbo, who was acquitted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), returned to Côte d’Ivoire and Henri Konan Bédié agreed to take the good with the bad.

The head of state even met with his two predecessors and long-time adversaries, and the trio is once again showing each other “brotherly love” by repeatedly and joyously kissing one another.

In terms of substance, and what each thinks of the other two, this changes nothing. But with regard to form, it changes everything.

Patrick Achi has taken the reins of government, Gbagbo has left the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) to create a new party and the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) is still waiting to know if Bédié will one day hand over power. As for Guillaume Soro, the former rebel leader who became president of the National Assembly and is now out of favour, remains in exile. No doubt he is pondering the vicissitudes of fate. After all, if he had just been a little patient and remained in the RHDP, he would now be considered a potential candidate to succeed ADO.

The head of state received us late on the morning of 15 September in his large office at the presidential palace in the Plateau. During this interview, which lasted more than an hour and was the first he has given since his re-election, he answered our questions about the events of the past 18 months and his vision for his country’s future.

The past year has been particularly trying, between the deaths of your two prime ministers, your third term candidacy that was challenged by the opposition and a tense presidential election. Not to mention the Covid-19 crisis. What was it like going through it and what did you learn from it?

Alassane Ouattara: This year has indeed been very difficult. The death of two of my very close collaborators, whom I saw as sons, Coulibaly and Bakayoko, represents a huge loss for Côte d’Ivoire as they accomplished a lot of work in the service of their nation. And of course for me too, because of the personal and emotional ties we had.

AGC had been nominated as the RHDP’s candidate for the presidential election, in particular, to embody the generational renewal that I had been calling for. His sudden death, only a few weeks before the candidacies were to be submitted, led me to change my decision [to leave office], and I did so at my party’s request. The Constitution, which was approved by more than 93% of Ivorians in 2016, allowed me to do so. I did not wish to do so because I had made the choice, in my soul and conscience, to step down. But I felt that it was necessary to ensure the country’s stability.

What happened afterwards profoundly shocked me and left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. The election was marred by serious incidents after some opposition “leaders” called for civil disobedience and tried to promote the idea of a transition government that had no legal basis or legitimacy.

These people knew full well that I was eligible for a new term and that I had initially decided to withdraw. I was deeply disappointed by this intellectual dishonesty. Why would senior officials, some of whom managed Côte d’Ivoire, decide to organise a boycott of the elections and call for actions that led to violence and numerous deaths? A commission of enquiry has been set up. The results will be made public and sanctions will be introduced.

Is the atmosphere calmer today?

Thankfully, yes. We are coming out of a full electoral cycle, as the presidential election took place in October 2020 and the legislative one occurred in March 2021, in which the opposition took part.

We now have a plural National Assembly, where all our country’s major parties are represented. This is the first time that this has happened in over 20 years.

Is it finally time for reconciliation?

This is my wish and we are doing everything to achieve it. We adopted an amnesty law in 2018, created a ministry dedicated to reconciliation and national cohesion and, more recently, released on parole almost all the civilians that had been incarcerated within the context of these political crises. We have also established a framework for dialogue between the government and the parties. Finally, I met with Presidents Bédié on 11 November 2020 and Gbagbo on 27 July.

How did you feel about Gbagbo’s return in June and what did you think of it a month later?

I felt that, after his trial at the ICC, it was obvious that Gbagbo had to return to Côte d’Ivoire. We organised his return, things went well and we met. It was a fraternal and friendly meeting. Gbagbo is a major player in our country’s political life but also a former president. Therefore, I gave instructions that he should receive all the advantages and considerations due to his rank.

Do you think he is being sincere when he says that he wants to take part in national reconciliation? You two have a complicated history…

I don’t want to judge him, his actions will speak for him. We now have a good and normal relationship, and we often exchange phone calls.

And with Bédié?

It’s the same. I recently spoke to him on the phone when his family was in mourning. I personally feel that –  as far as this country’s three political leaders are concerned, and if I am to be included in this trio – things are going well, as people would say. We also hope to meet in the near future to discuss the challenges that Côte d’Ivoire is facing.

What do you think of their alliance?

It is their decision.

Some people close to you have described it as a fool’s game…

Let’s just say that it is indeed surprising because they do not have the same political ideology. Gbagbo is a socialist whereas Bédié is a centrist liberal. I find it hard to imagine what kind of programme they would be able to put together and propose to the Ivorians!

Gbagbo has decided to create a new party and abandon the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), which is now led by Pascal Affi N’Guessan. Does this bother you?

No, not at all. We have a constitution and laws. Any citizen who respects them should be given the chance [to create a party].

When you announced that you would not be seeking a third term on 5 March 2020, you mentioned a need to transform the political class. However, it does not seem like anything has changed for the time being as Ivorians remain focused on yourself, Gbagbo and Bédié. How can we make sure that this change gets underway? 

I didn’t just talk about generational renewal. It should be noted that – on that day in Yamoussoukro, before the parliament meeting in congress – I had declared that I would not be running as a candidate. I felt that it was time to hand over power. Exceptional circumstances forced me to change this decision, but I now feel that – for the most part – this matter has been settled.

I have nothing against it. I will remind you, for the umpteenth time, that I decided to leave when I was 78 years old! This debate doesn’t bother me.

Regarding the government’s composition, more than a dozen ministers have been appointed to key positions and are under 50 years old. The presidency’s secretary-general [Abdourahmane Cissé], who is one of the government’s most important figures, has just turned 40. Finally, the administration and RHDP, where many young government leaders have taken on responsibilities, have also been rejuvenated.

And what do you envisage for the 2025 presidential election?

I was re-elected less than a year ago. My immediate concern is to be at my compatriots’ service. Regarding 2025, I will make the appropriate decision when the time comes. That being said, I expressed my position back in March 2020…

What is the status of the Soro investigation? Would you be ready, like you did with Gbagbo and Bédié, to make an effort to renew your relationship with him?

I have nothing to say in particular about Soro’s case. This case is not at my level, but rather in the hands of justice. The charges against him are extremely serious and he has been sentenced to life imprisonment, but he can obviously return and face justice.

Do you think that Côte d’Ivoire has finally been inoculated against violence linked to political crises?

I think so. Moreover, we faced an attempt at destabilisation before the election; what would the situation have been like after the vote?

My only regret, and it’s a big one, is the madness of a few, who are ready to do anything, even the worst, for power.

We are doing everything possible to consolidate democracy and improve our citizens’ well-being. And we have good relations with neighbouring countries. This will help ensure that we don’t face the same kind of crises we experienced in the past.

An independent member of parliament has stated that he intends to propose a text that would restore the 75-year-old age limit for presidential candidates. This is one way of making sure that this famous transformation gets underway…

I have nothing against it. I will remind you, for the umpteenth time, that I decided to leave when I was 78 years old! This debate doesn’t bother me. It is up to Parliament to approve or reject the proposal.

Such a measure would prevent you, as well as Bédié and Gbagbo, from running in 2025. And it would put an end to the conflict between you that has lasted nearly three decades…

The Constitution must be impersonal. It should not be about Ouattara, Bédié or Gbagbo.

Some people think the rise of your brother – Téné Birahima, who is now minister of defence – means that you are grooming him to succeed you. Is this the case?

He is doing a very good job and is not interested in anything other than the responsibilities I am giving him. This is not up for debate.

Do you already have someone in mind to replace you, the new Coulibaly, as it were? 

Coulibaly, who had worked with me for 30 years, was an obvious choice. Everyone knows that he was a very competent and honest person, who had a particularly sharp political mind.

We are in a new configuration. Democracy must play its full role within the RHDP, which will designate its candidate.

During a primary for example?

I don’t know. The RHDP will have to decide on the best way to proceed, but it must be a democratic choice, like the one that led me to agree to become their candidate.

Do you regret this decision?

No. With hindsight, I am rather relieved today that I made it. My only regret, and it’s a big one, is the madness of a few, who are ready to do anything, even the worst, for power.

Are you satisfied with the government led by your prime minister, Achi?

Yes, I am. Achi is a very good prime minister. He has an excellent knowledge of the administration and the private sector, a good education, which he acquired in Côte d’Ivoire, France and the US. The government has been rejuvenated and is truly inclusive, as it has at least two ministers from each of the country’s 14 districts. The pace of reform is rapidly increasing, I can’t help but be satisfied.

What about the RHDP? It has lost two major figures: Coulibaly, who was president of the board and around whom its organisation had been conceived, and Bakayoko, who had partly taken over…

I recognise that the situation is no longer the same. How could it be? Fortunately, the elections are behind us and we are now going through a slow period. The RHDP needs to be thoroughly restructured. I have set up a committee chaired by the minister of state Gilbert Kafana Koné, which must make proposals before the end of the year.

One of the major challenges is that all of the RHDP’s members have joined the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR). Do you think it has worked out nicely? 

Let’s be frank: not totally yet. Some continue to think in terms of their original formation. The RHDP must become a union of parties that exists by itself and no longer be a coalition of former movements.

That being said, the RHDP is still a strong party, the largest in Côte d’Ivoire, as 60% of its members are in parliament and three-quarters of them are senators. It is the only one that is firmly established throughout the country, in all regions, departments, communes and villages, and it brings together citizens from all walks of life.

Why have you still not appointed a new vice president to replace Daniel Kablan Duncan?

The priority, after renewing the National Assembly, was to form a new government team to pursue and accelerate the country’s economic and social development. The vice-president acts on delegation from the head of state, who appoints him. So there is no legal vacuum, as some people would have us believe. Everything in its own time.

What do you think are your government’s main challenges?

We must continue our march towards development despite the economic and security difficulties, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic. This means speeding up our country’s transformation and improving our fellow citizens’ living conditions. This is the basis of our programme – “La Côte d’Ivoire Solidaire” – which was drawn up by Coulibaly and Achi.

Through our new Plan National de Développement (PND) – which will mobilise $110bn for the period 2021-2025, three-quarters of which will come from the private sector – we are going to accelerate people’s access to education, water, electricity and healthcare. But we will also promote the emergence of national champions – just like South Korea, Vietnam and, somewhere closer to home, Morocco has done – and the financing of projects to create more jobs for young people and women, by industrialising our country and locally processing our raw materials.

We must also increase our actions in favour of the triptych “peace, security and justice” to strengthen social cohesion, consolidate peace and counter any attempt at a terrorist attack. Our objective is to reduce regional and social disparities, double per capita income again between 2020 and 2030, and halve the poverty rate so that Côte d’Ivoire can join the circle of emerging countries within the upper bracket.

Isn’t this too ambitious, given the impact of the Covid crisis?

Absolutely not. Thanks to the implementation of health and economic response plans, Côte d’Ivoire’s economy has demonstrated great resilience, as it had a growth rate of 2% in 2020, which is rare in the world. In 2021, it will be between six and seven per cent and then we will return to the rate we had between 2012 and 2019, around eight per cent. This allows us to maintain a good outlook, and therefore our ambitions.

Your fellow citizens are also concerned about fighting against corruption and, more broadly, good governance…

I am fully aware of this. This has been demonstrated by the strength and speed at which the Haute Autorité pour la Bonne Gouvernance implemented its actions, the creation of a ministry dedicated to fighting against corruption and the launch of several management audits in various public structures.

We are also paying particular attention to raising awareness, developing the capacities of the institutions in charge of these issues, as well as modernising and digitalising the administration’s procedures to put an end to this scourge. Finally, and this is obvious, sanctions are needed. From this point of view, there is zero tolerance.

The Ivorian government recently announced that a major oil deposit had been discovered. This is great news, as there is talk that its reserves are ten times bigger than those that exist today. Is this true?

Yes, it is. This is a major discovery – the first in 20 years – of crude oil and gas, made with the Italian group Eni.

For oil, preliminary estimates are between 1.5 and 2 billion barrels, while our current reserves are 160 million. In terms of gas, we are talking about somewhere between 1,800 and 2,400 billion cubic feet, which is twice the current level. We are aiming for production to start by 2024 or 2025.

But despite this excellent news for our country and the windfall it represents, we will continue to diversify the economy, as we mentioned earlier.

The security situation in the Sahel is a cause for concern. Côte d’Ivoire has been the target of jihadist attacks, particularly on its border with Burkina Faso. What are you doing to counter this threat?

This is a major challenge. Profound changes have been made within the Ivorian army, which is more professional, disciplined, better trained and better-equipped thanks to major investments that have been made since 2013. Soldiers will continue to be trained within the framework of the Académie Internationale de Lutte contre le Terrorisme in Jacqueville.

We will also increase the number of troops by recruiting 10,000 new soldiers [there are nearly 18,000 today] over the next three years, including about 3,000 to 4,000 this year. This will also allow us to harmonise the age and rank pyramids.

Furthermore, we will increase our collaboration with neighbouring countries, notably Burkina Faso and Mali, but also other coastal countries such as Togo, Ghana and Benin.

Given what happened in Mali, and more recently in Guinea, do you have full confidence in your army and its leaders?

Completely. Côte d’Ivoire has an excellent, republican army with well-trained officers that respect the law.

What do you think of these coups? Are you concerned that democracy appears to be taking a back seat within ECOWAS?

I strongly condemn both the coup in Mali and the one that took place in Guinea. It is unacceptable. All the sub-regional heads of state said so at the Ecowas summit, which also imposed sanctions.

During our mission, which was led by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, to Conakry on 17 September, we told the Guinean military authorities that we were concerned about President Alpha Condé’s physical integrity and state of health. The president [Mamady Doumbouya] of the CNRD [Comité National du Rassemblement et du Développement] assured us on this subject.

We must support the Guineans so that the transition government has a minimum impact on the population. We must return to constitutional order as soon as possible. This should not prevent us from critiquing our various countries’ modes of governance. Because obviously, bad governance can lead the military to intervene in the political game, which is not desirable. Those in power must take better account of reality, of their country’s evolution and of all social strata, especially the youth, as well as of the entire national territory’s balanced development.

Your friend and former Burkinabe counterpart, Blaise Compaoré, is due to appear before a military court in Ouagadougou on 11 October in the assassination trial of Thomas Sankara. Some people believe that you are protecting him by welcoming him here in Côte d’Ivoire and that he must answer to his country’s justice system. What do you say to them?

This is a problem between former president Compaoré and his country. He is in Côte d’Ivoire for well-known reasons. His wife is Ivorian and Côte d’Ivoire has always been a land of hospitality. I do not intend to interfere in a matter that is due to appear before Burkina Faso’s courts.

Since your re-election, how has your relationship with France’s President Emmanuel Macron been? 

It has been excellent, just like the relationship between Côte d’Ivoire and France, which has been a privileged partner for several decades. We often talk to each other, about the situation in Côte d’Ivoire as well as the situation on a continental and international scale, and we see each other when I am in Paris.

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