A little gymnastics, a good physiotherapist, no alcohol and a Cuban cigar from time to time… At 85 years old, Henri Konan Bédié is in great shape. And, ushering us into his luxurious Paris apartment on 10 September, his mood is jubilant. With Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential elections a year away, he has just met Guillaume Soro and is still basking in the afterglow of his trip to Brussels at the end of July, where he visited Laurent Gbagbo. So what if these two colossi are historical opponents? In the great poker game of Ivorian politics it’s double or quits.
His new ally, Gbagbo, will remain compromised for many months to come, kept silent and far from Abidjan by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, who appealed his acquittal on 16 September. So Henri Konan Bédié is at the head of the anti-Ouattara squad.
After a marriage of convenience with President Alassane Ouattara that lasted 15 years, Bédié, leader of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) ended their union and resumed his acrimony against the head of state. “This break-up has given him a new taste for politics,” confides a source close to Bédié. Exactly 20 years after being ousted from power by General Robert Gueï’s soldiers, he seems to be dreaming of returning to the presidential palace. More than a revenge, it would be a resurrection for the man they call the “Sphinx of Daoukro”.
A month and a half ago, you visited Laurent Gbagbo in Brussels. Since then, the PDCI and the Front Populaire Ivorien (FPI) have succeeded in their first challenge by organising a major joint rally in Abidjan. How is your alliance progressing?
Henri Konan Bédié: What we decided in Brussels is still valid. The PDCI and the FPI now work together on the same political platform.
Ideologically, your two parties have little in common. What form will this alliance take?
They are socialists and we are liberal, so our platform is neither ideological nor rigid. It is an agreement to work together on specific objectives for the 2020 presidential election.
Will you agree on a common candidate?
No. Each party will have its candidate. But in the second round, the best placed will receive the support of the other.
How was Laurent Gbagbo when you saw him on 29 July?
He was doing very well.
Will you see him again soon?
I am not scheduled to go to Brussels immediately. Actually, I’m more looking forward to returning to Côte d’Ivoire.
At the beginning of September, you also met with the former speaker of the Ivorian parliament, Guillaume Soro, in Paris. Will he be part of this platform?
I have very good relations with Guillaume, we have the same vision, and the movements that support him are part of our alliance.
Did he tell you if he will run?
We didn’t talk about it.
If he runs and doesn’t get into the second round, will he support the best placed of the two of you?
Has Gbagbo agreed to join forces with Soro? Their relationship is likely to be difficult…
Why should we ask Laurent Gbagbo for his agreement? Guillaume Soro’s political movements are on one side, and Laurent Gbagbo’s FPI is on the other. Each entity does not need the agreement of the other to do this or that.
The watchword of this platform appears to be “everything but Ouattara”…
It is not directed against anyone. But we are a large opposition rally, and Alassane Ouattara is not part of the opposition.
When he commented on your meeting, the Ivorian president said: “I know what Laurent Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bédié think of each other,” implying that you do not hold each other in high esteem…
He makes pronouncements like that, he thinks he knows what people think. But often, when he realises he’s made a mistake, it’s a rude awakening.
In politics, nothing is definitive. But for the time being, our alliance is broken.”
Is he wrong about your relationship with Laurent Gbagbo?
Yes. When you form convictions like that, you open yourself up to disappointment.
Is your break-up with Ouattara final?
In politics, nothing is definitive. But for the time being, our alliance is broken. I don’t see how it could be otherwise.
Are there still channels for discussion between the two of you?
You two aren’t talking anymore?
There is no more dialogue between us. But from time to time we call each other, like when he lost his daughter-in-law, or on the national holiday.
Before you were allies from 2005 to 2018 you were great rivals, and you are again. Is it a case of taking off the masks?
Yes. He did not keep the commitments he made to me in the Daoukro Appeal. He did not respect his commitments for regime change in 2020!
The PDCI candidate doesn’t have to be Bédié!”
His entourage says you asked him to support your own candidacy. For him, that’s clearly unacceptable…
That’s not true! I’m the PDCI, and the PDCI is me! I didn’t ask him to support Bédié, but to support the PDCI candidate. That’s what he didn’t want to do.
And isn’t the PDCI candidate for 2020 Bédié?
It doesn’t have to be Bédié!
Ouattara has said he will soon make changes to the Constitution. One of them could be restoring an age limit for running for the Supreme Court. What do you think of that?
There are serious risks of manipulation, and we will fight this project.
Could the idea of this be to exclude you from the race?
We can’t think for him. But if I were him, I wouldn’t do that. As a manoeuvre it’s too obvious.
Are you going to run in the next presidential election?
You will know in the second half of 2020, when the nomination convention chooses the PDCI candidate. I’ve been President of the Republic but I’ve never been a candidate. People have always come to ask me.
But do you want to?
If the party asks me then I will see what physical and personal state I am in then.
Would becoming president again constitute a revenge for the 1999 coup d’état that overthrew you?
Yes, it would be a revenge, but there would be no vengeance. It would simply bring me justice.
Would it also be a revenge for 2010? Do you still think you should have been in the second round?
Yes, exactly. But it would also be a factor in reconciliation.
Could there be an election with Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié as candidates in 2020?
No, because, unlike me, he doesn’t have the right to run.
A third term for Ouattara would not be acceptable to me, nor to the country.”
Ouattara says the Constitution allows him to serve a third term….
If he manipulates it perhaps, but not currently.
Don’t you consider that the clock was reset to zero with the vote on the new Basic Law in 2016?
No. The limit is two terms, it’s written in the Constitution. A third term would not be acceptable to me, nor to the country. If he does [stand], you will see the pandemonium it brings.
What do you say to Ivorians who complain the same generation is still in charge and that we must let younger politicians have their turn?
At the PDCI, we don’t have that problem. Our party is 60% led by young people under 45 years of age – there are hundreds of them in our structures.
But it’s you who are in charge…
I am not an autocratic boss, I govern with them.
After your break-up with Ouattara, important members of your party, such as Patrick Achi or Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio, joined the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP). Isn’t that a hard blow to take?
No, not at all. As you can see, there are very high expectations from the PDCI, mobilisation is becoming increasingly important. These people who left us did not take our voters with them, they did not even take people from their own villages. They left on their own.
Do you understand their choice?
I suppose they acted in their own interests. For some, to keep a job; for others, because they had been threatened by those in power.
Some of them were close to you. Did you feel betrayed?
It’s a betrayal, but I have no resentment. I’ve been in politics for a long time, they’re not the first traitors I’ve seen. They can neither weaken me nor affect me much.
In June, you were accused of reviving talk of “Ivoirité” [a nationalist concept used to discriminate against immigrants]. How do you respond?
I never used the word “Ivoirité”. I said that illegal gold diggers were foreigners from neighbouring countries and that they operated against the interests of the country. The worst thing is that they come armed. Even Alassane Ouattara acknowledged that clandestine gold panning was a scourge for Côte d’Ivoire!
You also talked about the massive invasion of foreigners and their recruitment for elections…
I mentioned fraud on Ivorian nationality, that’s true. There are fake ID cards that have been manufactured abroad. Trucks and documents were seized, it was all proved in investigations, but their findings were put in a drawer. What have we done with these forgeries? I don’t know, but leaders of the RHDP such as Kobenan Kouassi Adjoumani said: “At the RHDP, we are not afraid to recruit foreigners for the elections.” He confessed. There are registrations of foreigners on the voters’ lists for the elections. This is how the RHDP intends to win in 2020, with electoral livestock.
These are serious charges, so you’re making them again?
Yes. And when an HRDP member of parliament [Mariam Traoré, MP for Tengrela, in the North] says that she doesn’t want to give power to non-Muslims for anything in the world, it is even more serious than Ivoirité. And this elected official was not even sanctioned.
Are you concerned about the political climate in Côte d’Ivoire?
It is a concern. Look at the latest cabinet reshuffle: a cenacle of 54 ministers [including the prime minister] has just been formed. Now we have to set these people up, give them a few million so they can build a house as tradition dictates, they have to form a cabinet, we have to find them premises, vehicles… And all this to get their hands on the government budget and campaign for their boss.
But who is their boss? The prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, has been cited as the RHDP candidate for 2020. What do you think of his record?
His performance is not particularly good. He has led the country into a faltering economy: growth is slowing down, unemployment is ballooning…
However, the major international institutions applaud Côte d’Ivoire, saying it has one of the best growth rates on the continent…
But our debt has continued to increase.
There’s no age limit in politics.”
Until last year, your party was in government with Ouattara’s party. Aren’t you also responsible for this balance sheet?
No, this is the responsibility of the President of the Republic. I just appointed a few people to the government, that’s all. We didn’t even hold key positions.
You are now 85 years old, you have been leading your party for more than 25 years, you have already been President… What is it that still drives you?
There’s no age limit in politics. As long as I am healthy, as long as the PDCI needs me, I must serve. I’m not after money, I’m not after honours: I do it because it’s my mission, like the priesthood.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.
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