Places of Power: Côte d’Ivoire’s mysterious temple of the Freemasons

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Secret Places of Power

By Vincent Duhem, in Abidjan

Posted on Thursday, 1 September 2022 17:03, updated on Friday, 2 September 2022 16:41

If presidential palaces are symbols of the power of heads of state, other places and buildings still play a crucial role... Like this discreet villa in Abidjan, which houses the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Côte d'Ivoire.

This is part 4 of a 7-part series

The ballet of cars begins at nightfall. Several times a week, they perform their dance. With time, the residents have become accustomed to it. They have noticed the presence of bodyguards, the flashing lights and the official number plates, and they recognise certain faces. Their questions, however, remain. What is going on inside this white building? At the entrance, a single clue helps to direct the initiates: two large columns decorated with letters representing Masonic names.

We are in Bietry, a chic neighbourhood in the commune of Marcory, in Abidjan. It is here, in this villa, which at first glance looks very ordinary, that the temple of the Grand Lodge of Côte d’Ivoire (GLCI) is located. It is not the only one in the country – the GLCI has one in each of its four provinces – but here is the principal one: A place as secret as the powerful institution it houses. Every day, at least one lodge holds a ritual meeting there, called a “dress”. Administrative meetings are also held there, as are the “agapes”, a sort of ritual banquet, entrusted to a “house” caterer.

Phantasmal practices

Freemasonry is a largely unknown initiatory society for Ivorians but has been present in their country since the 1930s. Its history is as eventful – it was banned by Félix Houphouët-Boigny until 1972 – as its imagined practices. Founded at the end of the 1980s by merchants and businessmen, the GLCI and its 40 lodges are now the most influential Masonic institution in the country. One of the conditions for membership is a belief in God.

Among its 2,000 members, none of whom are women, the lodge counts leading ministers, magistrates, businessmen and general army officers. It is less a philosophical brotherhood than a network of influence that allows its members to climb the ladder, obtain privileges, facilitate projects, get contracts signed…

Bietry temple opens onto a large hall where lockers are available for participants. They can change there before entering the various celebration rooms. Each room is named after a great figure of the lodge, now deceased. The main one is called the Clotaire Magloire Coffie Temple, in reference to the founder of GLCI who died in January 2017. Inside, rows of red chairs and blue upholstered benches surround a lectern. Two pictures, badges and distinctive emblems of Masonry adorn the walls. The floor is tiled. A black and white checkerboard has been placed in the centre of the room.

Dress code

Two types of meetings are held. The first, administrative, does not require any particular protocol, apart from the opening and closing prayers. People come dressed in civilian clothes, there is an agenda, the minutes of the previous meeting are validated at the beginning of the session, and voting is done by a show of hands. It’s just like any other association meeting.

The atmosphere changes when it’s time for the “dress” or the general assemblies in the lodge. Here the dress code is strict: dark suits, ties, socks and shoes, accompanied by a white shirt. Participants must also wear an apron according to their rank – apprentice, journeyman or master – as well as a collar appropriate to the position they will occupy during the ceremony – general master, secretary, speaker, or master of ceremonies.

After some administrative information, a brother reads a text. The paper is placed on a wooden board. Its subject has been decided beforehand. It is a sort of essay on a social theme, approached from a Masonic angle. During the major general assemblies, the most eagerly awaited moment is the reception of foreign delegations. It follows a precise protocol – each lodge has its own anthem and coat of arms – and can last an hour and a half.

“Hambak”, the loss of a pillar

Hamed Bakayoko, the late Grand Master of GLCI. ©Bruno LEVY for JA

Certain so-called ‘funerary dresses’ are an opportunity to pay tribute to a departed ‘brother’. GLCI has not been spared. Habib Touré De Movaly died on 26 October 2021, in a Parisian hospital, of liver cancer. He was the first supervisor of the lodge, a very influential position. On 15 June, its Grand National Secretary, Michel Rosier, passed away.

Before them, GLCI had lost its most important stalwart: Hamed Bakayoko, who died on 10 March 2021 of an aggressive cancer. All-powerful Grand Master since 2015, the former prime minister had been re-elected in 2020, for a second five-year term. However, in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic, he was unable to be inaugurated. In the days following his death, the Masons organised several meetings in the Bietry temple compound. They had a special character because it was Hamed Bakayoko who initiated the extension and renovation work, carried out between 2017 and 2019 by Alain Kouadio and Robert Daoud, two well-known architects and brothers of light.

The death of ‘Hambak’ has put the highly secretive GLCI in the spotlight. The question of his succession was a major issue in the press. After acting as interim director, Sylvère Koyo was finally elected last December. The business lawyer will be installed at the next general assembly in April.

‘Too many leaks’

Some GLCI brothers did not like to see their activities exposed in the public arena. One evening, in March 2021, the father-in-law of the deceased and eminent member of the lodge, Emmanuel Tanoh, was moved. The man who was officiating on the occasion as Grand Master of Honour then pounded his fist on the table. “There are too many leaks,” said the former barrister, member of the Constitutional Council and the presidential party, the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP).

He gives the example of “Christ Yapi”, a well-known character to Ivorians who floods Facebook, Twitter and Youtube with allegedly exclusive information, of which masonry is one of the favourite topics. Tanoh’s outburst plunges the room into a cathedral-like silence. The jingle of the famous Yapi then escapes from the phone of one of the participants, triggering a great deal of laughter from the brothers of light.

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