Issiaka Ouattara, errant soldier and talented negotiator
The life of Ivorian commander Issiaka Ouattara, known as Wattao, who has died aged 53, was intimately linked to his country's tumultuous history. Part two of a two-part series takes up the story during the 2002 rebellion.
READ Part 1: here
Retreating to the north, mainly to Bouaké, the attackers then set about organising the rebellion. Wattao’s role was central to this undertaking. “One of the pillars of 19 September 2002 has collapsed. I say one of the pillars. I am thinking of his children and his whole family,” intoned Soro when Wattao’s death was announced on 5 January.
Pillar of rebellion in the north
Wattao was indeed a pillar of that rebellion. Head of security in Bouaké, headquarters of the Forces Armées des Forces Nouvelles, he was one of the powerful “comzones” (zone commanders) of this locality throughout the rebellion, from 2002 to 2011. He was in close contact with another zone commander, the current Colonel-Major Cherif Ousmane – known as “Papa Cheetah” –, the two men oscillating between friendship and rivalry.
No doubt the man who was also known as “Saha Bélé-Bélé” (big snake, in Malinké), takes to the grave many secrets about this dark period in Ivorian history, from the conditions in which at least 52 gendarmes and eight of their children were killed during an attack in October 2002 in Bouaké to the break-up of the regional branch of the Banque Centrale des États d’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) and the deadly fighting between pro-Soro and pro-IB camps.
In 2007, with the signing of the Ouagadougou Accords between Gbagbo and Soro, Wattao and the comzones were admitted to Abidjan. He then became close to Charles Blé Goudé, then the powerful leader of the Gbagbo-supporting Jeunes Patriotes and Soro’s former right-hand man at the Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire (FESCI, the main student movement).
It was the meeting of two men who were later to hog the media spotlight. “I remember that after the Ouagadougou Accords in 2007, when I was trying to get access to Ivorians on the other side of the fence, which was called the zone of confidence, I got a certain Issiaka Ouattara, known as Wattao, on the phone,” recalls Blé Goudé.
Following in the footsteps of his boss Guillaume Soro, Blé joined Ouattara during the post-electoral crisis. The 10 zone commanders of the rebellion then formed Ouattara’s general staff, which, with the support of the French forces of Opération Licorne, ended up overcoming Gbagbo’s generals.
Return to the army
At the end of the crisis, when IB was killed in Abobo, Abidjan, in conditions that have never been clarified, the 10 zone commanders of the rebellion were all appointed as generals in the army. These included Wattao, who, when he deserted in 2000, had the rank of corporal.
He still thought he was in the rebellion, and used its violent methods”
Appointed deputy commander of the Garde Républicaine, then deputy commander of the Centre de Coordination des Opérations Décisionnelles (CCDO, a mixed force of gendarmes, soldiers and police officers responsible for securing Abidjan and Bouaké), he was, however, relieved of all his command duties in 2014, thus paying for his high-profile antics reported in the media.
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A giant with feet of clay
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“He still thought he was in the rebellion, and used its violent methods,” comments one defence expert. His name also appeared in a United Nations expert report on diamond trafficking in northern Côte d’Ivoire.
“The main diamond traders pay elements of the FRCI (Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire, now the Forces Armées de Côte d’Ivoire) commanded by Wattao to be allowed to trade in rough diamonds and export them illegally,” the UN experts wrote.
Alassane Ouattara was even less enamoured of the fact that Wattao regularly ignored his professional duty to remain discreet. The broadcast of a report by the French channel 13è Rue, entitled “Passport for crime”, in which the officer is portrayed showing off his opulence, was not unrelated to his being sidelined.
It shows the luxury cars that Wattao was fond of, as well as a solid gold pistol, presented as a “war prize” recovered from Gbagbo’s residence – a story denied by people close to Gbagbo. Annoyed by the restless soldier, Ouattara found a solution: he sent him for training in Morocco.
Last March, however, Wattao was promoted to colonel major. “When Wattao went for his training at the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre in Morocco, he was brilliant. The King of Morocco and I talked about it. Also, with the chief of staff of the Royal Court of Morocco, we talked about Wattao’s thirst for learning,” Ouattara said a few hours after learning of the soldier’s death.
It was Wattao who negotiated with the Bouaké mutineers
In a huge honour for a controversial soldier, the Ivorian president observed a minute’s silence in his name at the presidential palace. “It is all these achievements that earned him his promotion to the rank of colonel major,” Ouattara said.
Wattao also was entrusted with handling the 2017 mutinies. It was he who negotiated with the Bouaké mutineers and reached an agreement with them, which has not been made public. Three weeks after this successful outcome, he was appointed head of the Garde Républicaine and colonel.
His return to grace was, however, short-lived. In February 2019, when his friend Guillaume Soro was forced to resign from the presidency of the National Assembly, an investigation was opened into suspicions of an attempt on the authority of the State. The investigators were careful not to question Wattao himself, nor to worry him directly. However, mistrust was growing between him and Ouattara.
Ouattara ousted him from the Garde Républicane and appointed him to command the units attached to the General Staff of the Armed Forces. A position more honorary than operational. Nevertheless, in mid-December 2019, while he was in the United States, where he was rushed to the emergency room for severe diabetes, he was promoted to Colonel Major. A few days afterwards, he passed away.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.