Alassane Ouattara: ‘I did it my way’
In his first interview since announcing that he would not run for office, the Ivorian head of state looks back on his political career and explains the reasons that led him to choose his successor.
Alassane Ouattara’s announcement on 5 March that he would not run for a third term surprised everyone except a few hand-picked insiders.
A historic act; for the first time in Côte d’Ivoire, a democratically-elected president will organize a handover of power with another democratically-elected president. It is also a marker forf other African heads of state who are tempted to play extra time.
The Ivorian President made his choice a long time ago, when the Third Republic was promulgated with the Constitution of 2016.
Although his certainties wavered during the mutinies of January and May 2017, he has never questioned it since the security situation returned to normal.
From then, it was all about strategy.
Announcing a decision too early carried many risks, including having one’s authority undermined or witnessing a war of ambition that would be detrimental to the unity of one’s side.
Too late, and the candidate called upon to represent the RHDP at the presidential election next October would have been put in difficulty, prevented from establishing his legitimacy and carrying out a campaign worthy of the name.
The candidate is his prime minister and closest collaborator for the past 30 years, Amadou Gon Coulibaly. In the interview that follows — the first since his announcement and probably the last as president — Alassane Ouattara explains why he chose to respect his commitment to the Constitution and why he made Gon Coulibaly his runner-up.
He also looks back over his two terms in office, discusses his relations with Henri Konan Bédié and Guillaume Soro, the case of Laurent Gbagbo, and the reform of the CFA franc, his past, and his political career.
But he also looks to the future, that of his country as well as his own.
He received us in his presidential office on 9 March for an interview lasting more than an hour.
Smiling, relaxed and talkative. Almost liberated…
On 5 March you announced your decision not to run for a third term. What motivated this choice?
Alassane Ouattara: It was a decision taken a long time ago, particularly since the adoption of the 2016 Constitution, and I had the opportunity to announce it on several occasions. Ten years in power is more than enough. And I have a history of keeping my commitments.
Has your position changed over the months or circumstances? In other words, have you reconsidered?
It’s true, I had some apprehensions in 2017, with the mutinies that shook everyone, including myself. I said to myself, “If we can’t restore security, would it be in my country’s interest to leave?”
But since 2018, we have put things back in place, the level of security is now satisfactory, the defence and security forces are truly professional and republican. Therefore, there is no longer any reason to doubt the future and the stability of the country.
For a time, you linked your candidacy to those of Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo. Was that a threat?
Let’s say it was a strategy…
You have stated that you want to pass the baton on to future generations. Do you think that this is the case for other politicians, in your own ranks and those of the opposition?
I hope so, in any case. I believe that in the 21st century, when many heads of state around the world are between 40 and 50 years old, it is not normal for Côte d’Ivoire to continue with an elderly president.
Is your decision intended to set a precedent? We’re thinking of the case of Alpha Condé in Guinea, of those who have played extra time before, of those who are thinking about it for tomorrow…
I could have manipulated the texts, as many do or wish to do, but that is not my way of seeing and doing politics.
No, my decision is really linked to the situation in my country. I did not think about another country or another head of state at all, that is not my role.
Every nation has its own specificities. Côte d’Ivoire has its Constitution, and I am the President of the Republic. It is true that I could have manipulated the texts, as many do or wish to do, but that is not my way of seeing and doing things.
You will not be a candidate and have decided to appoint Amadou Gon Coulibaly to wear the colours of the RHDP. Why him?
It’s obvious! Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly is, in my opinion, the most suitable person. He has all the qualities and skills required, he is a great worker who also shows a lot of humility. He has been working with me for 30 years.
He has held all the senior positions: after having been a manager at Grands Travaux, he was my technical advisor when I was Chairman of the Interdepartmental Committee in 1990 and when I was Prime Minister until 1993.
Finally, he was Secretary General of the Presidency, and has been at the Prime Minister’s Office for more than three years, with an excellent record.
He was Number 2 of the RDR [Rassemblement des républicains] under Henriette Dagri Diabaté, and he is now the chairman of the executive board that oversees the executive management of the RHDP [Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix].
He has also served several terms as mayor and member of Parliament. I repeat, humane, professionally and politically, in terms of skills and experience, he has all the necessary qualities to be the natural candidate for our formation. I am sure he will succeed.
How do you ensure that HRPD stays united behind him?
HPRD already is. I have no doubt about that. He is the team leader today, a united and competent team with many talents.
Other party cadres, such as Albert Toikeusse Mabri or Marcel Amon Tanoh, have stated their presidential ambitions.
I have had consultations with many HRPD officials, but none of them informed me of such matters.
What will change with the constitutional review you are preparing?
It is an important reform, whose sole concern is to improve our Constitution, to perpetuate a proven model of executive functioning, and to make technical adjustments to our institutions.
First of all, there is the status of the Vice-President. I am pragmatic: the current incumbent of the post was chosen by the President of the Republic, in agreement with the National Assembly, since there was no Senate at the time, and it worked well. I consider it preferable to continue with this formula, rather than opting for an American-style ticket, proposed before the election.
Second, we have found that the current Constitution is very rigid in terms of certain dates and deadlines. For example, the terms of the deputies and senators expire in December 2020, whereas it is clear that, even if there is no second round — which I believe there will be — it will be very difficult to hold legislative and senatorial elections before 31 December of this year. So, we have to postpone the term of office of parliamentarians until the next autumn, in April 2021. The elections for deputies and senators will therefore probably take place at the beginning of 2021.
Finally, another point of importance is the reform of the judicial system. It aims to establish the Court of Cassation and the Council of State as institutions of the Republic, in the same way as the Court of Audit. The other reforms envisaged, according to the comments of the Chairman of the Committee of Experts responsible for drafting the preliminary draft Constitution, consist of adjustments, the rectification of omissions, or the reformulation of certain provisions.
Is it not sensitive to make such changes a few months before the presidential elections?
No, because this type of revision falls under a procedure provided for and framed by the Constitution itself. It is true that sometimes it arouses mistrust and suspicion. Recent history shows, here as elsewhere, that these revisions have been used as a pretext to perpetuate a power or exclude opponents from the electoral game. The draft that has been submitted — and everyone can easily see this — does not in any way fit in with this approach.
There are now many points of friction between the government and the opposition regarding the electoral process. Is that not worrisome?
I don’t know what you call friction points. We’ve had two political dialogues. The first one, which lasted more than six months, was about the IEC [Independent Electoral Commission]. The discussions went well, until a major opposition party [the PDCI] decided not to go ahead with it because of politico-political considerations. The IEC was set up after this dialogue, with civil society and all the other parties involved.
The second dialogue focused on the electoral code, with proposals on sponsorship, the deposit and the threshold for candidate reimbursement, as well as on the transfer of voters. All these developments are in line with what the opposition was calling for. After the adoption of the Constitution, we will submit the bill amending the electoral code to Parliament.
I would like to point out that during the discussions we have taken into account the proposals of certain groups, in particular that of Pascal Affi Nguessan, in the FPI, to have more inclusiveness in the IEC. He insisted that the PDCI, the largest opposition party in Parliament, could not be absent from the Commission, even if this was their doing. This request was granted by an order assigning a seat to PDCI.
Let us talk about the PDCI. What is the state of your relations with Henri Konan Bédié?
They are fraternal.
Do you still talk to each other?
From time to time.
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You recently seemed to be in favour of reconciliation with him. What would be the terms?
I don’t see it that way since I have no problem with him.
He seems to have a problem with you…
I insist: I have no problem with my elder. He is the president of an opposition party, he is playing his role as an opponent, and this cannot in any way affect our relations.
His party was supposed to be part of the RHDP, but he chose to break up, and that is not insignificant?
True, but it’s his choice. I do not wish to question the choice of my eldest son.
Did he tell you if he wants to be a candidate in 2020?
I believe that was the reason for his decision to break off our alliance.
Tidjane Thiam recently left Credit Suisse. Could you appeal to him?
I know Tidjane Thiam, but it is up to him to say what he wants to do for the future.
Why is the Ivorian state opposed to Laurent Gbagbo’s return to the country pending the end of his trial?
Because, precisely, his trial is not over.
Do you think this could destabilise the country?
Let’s wait and see the end of his trial.
Why did you wait for the announcement of Guillaume Soro’s return to Côte d’Ivoire in December 2019 to issue an international arrest warrant against him when you were already informed of the charges against him, which date back to 2017?
This is an untruth. He could go back. He was the one who had his plane hijacked when he knew that he was going to be arrested, like any citizen suspected of committing an offence. I can tell you that the charges against him are very serious.
What is the status of the investigation?
It’s going on as normal, as can be expected.
He and your opponents claim that this is a manoeuvre to prevent him from running for president. How do you respond to them?
Nothing, since the candidacies are not yet officially open. I’m not interested in his candidacy or his non-candidacy. What I am interested in is the search for the truth so that justice can do its work independently. Especially, I repeat, since we are talking about extremely serious facts.
Have you tried to make any connection with him in recent weeks?
The last time I saw him was in February 2019, before he resigned as Speaker of the National Assembly. Since then, he hasn’t called me. So, I have no contact with him, by his own doing.
What is the status of the reform of the CFA franc, announced on 21 December in Abidjan?
It was important to clarify the relationship we had with France in relation to the CFA franc, even though many inaccurate things were said.
As a former governor of BCEAO, I felt it was time to make a number of reforms. We discussed this with President Macron and the heads of state of Uemoa. They asked me to conduct these negotiations with the French authorities. The result is that today there are no French members on the BCEAO board, nor on the Monetary Policy Committee, nor on the Banking Commission.
The second reform concerns our assets placed on the operating account with the French Treasury. They will be returned to BCEAO, which will be able to manage them in accordance with its cash management programme.
The operating account will therefore be closed. Finally, the name of the new currency: the eco will replace the CFA franc within the framework of ECOWAS. This change will take place in stages, depending on the countries that have met the convergence criteria.
We have unanimously preferred to maintain the fixed parity against the euro at this stage, which is a good decision because a large part of our trade is with Europe.
We have seen some minor tensions with certain English-speaking countries, notably Nigeria, which has expressed its reluctance [to adopt the eco].
Two things must be distinguished: the reform of the CFA franc on the one hand, and the introduction of the eco by ECOWAS on the other. Nigeria has nothing to do with the reform of the CFA franc, which only concerns the eight member states of Uemoa. Within the framework of ECOWAS, on the other hand, we have taken decisions for all 15 Member States. The reform must be carried out gradually, with the countries that will meet the convergence criteria.
We must also agree on the status of the Federal Central Bank, the exchange rate regime, and other technical elements. I can say that there are no difficulties with the other ECOWAS countries, including Nigeria.
When the reform of the CFA was announced on 21 December, it was done in the presence of Emmanuel Macron. Did you realise this may have come as a shock?
It is their right to criticize or make comments. We are talking about monetary sovereignty.
This is a matter for the Heads of State, and my peers in Uemoa have given me a mandate to carry out this reform and to have the texts resulting from the negotiations with France, which is directly concerned by this reform, period.
The statement made with President Macron on the occasion of his visit to Côte d’Ivoire in December is consistent with that reality. I find it difficult to understand this controversy …
Are there infiltrations of jihadist groups in the north of Côte d’Ivoire? More generally, do you fear being affected by the security situation of your neighbours, such as Burkina Faso?
We are concerned about the situation in both Burkina and Mali. We have made arrangements on our borders. We stand in solidarity with our neighbours and will provide support whenever necessary.
Do you continue to see former Burkinabe President Blaise Compaoré?
Yes, I see him regularly. He is my friend.
Does his return to Burkina Faso seem desirable to you?
It is a decision he must make with the authorities of his country.
What is your assessment of your two terms at the head of the country?
I am proud of it. My first term was cut by five months, when I was a recluse at the Hôtel du Golf, and I still have nearly eight months left before the end of the second.
But what we have accomplished in nine years is impressive! I detailed it in my speech, and I owe it to the team that accompanied me, and to the Ivorians who supported the implementation of important reforms.
The results are there, economically and socially, in the areas of justice, security, peace, social cohesion, reconciliation and diplomacy.
With a growth rate of 8% per year for nine years, we have doubled Côte d’Ivoire’s GDP over this period, which is exceptional! The poverty rate, which was 51% in 2011, will be 35% by the end of 2020.
The unemployment rate, in the broadest sense, which was 40% in 2011, is now 20%. S
chooling has become compulsory for children aged 6 to 16.
We have improved the prospects of young people by creating employment programmes for them, as well as those of women through a support fund. I don’t want to pretend to be modest: I’m really proud of our record. That’s why I’m confident that we will win the presidential election in October 2020.
One area of concern for many Ivorians is the fight against corruption. What has the government put in place to combat this scourge?
We have done a lot. Whenever cases have been reported to me, including in the judiciary, I have put an end to the functions of those involved.
Nevertheless, we are in a state governed by the rule of law, and evidence is needed to take action. We have, therefore, set up the High Authority for Good Governance, which receives the files of every civil servant and does follow-up work in this area.
What do you want us to retain from you in ten, 20 or 30 years’ time?
That I have done my utmost to rebuild my country, to bring peace, to bring Ivorians together and to work to improve their daily lives, with the ambition of making Côte d’Ivoire a great modern country.
Looking back, what was the best moment of your career?
On the evening of the second round of the presidential election, 28 November 2010, when I saw from our computer system at the Hotel du Golf that I had reached 53% of the votes when 98% of the ballots had been counted. I was sure I had been elected.
It was a great moment because it had cost us a lot of effort and sacrifice. Many people lost their lives in that fight. Finally, we were going to be able to do for our country what we had always dreamed of.
And what was the hardest part?
When I was at the German embassy on the evening of 18 September 2002, and had to announce to my wife, Dominique, my friends and colleagues — there were 17 of us — that the soldiers who had been sent by the regime had assassinated General Gueï and that my turn had come. I had then decided to give myself up, to let myself be assassinated to save the lives of others. It is a moment that I will never forget.
Some companions, whose names I did not mention, wanted to accompany me to suffer the same fate as me. My wife was on the verge of collapsing.
Fortunately, a few minutes later, I received a call from the late ambassador Renaud Vignal, who said, “Prime Minister, I just received a call from President Chirac, who asked me to come and get you and bring you to the Residence of France.”
How do you see your life after power?
I want to make my experience available to my country, to Africa, and even to the world — a national experience, but also a regional and global experience, since I was Deputy Managing Director of the IMF. I will soon finalize the statutes of my institute to advise on economic, governance, and environmental issues to those who express the need.
And on a more personal level?
I will finally have time to take care of my family, my children and, above all, my grandchildren. Which I have not been able to do for almost a quarter of a century, because of the political struggle I have led.
If you were to give one piece of advice, and only one, to your successor, what would it be?
To remain himself: be available, hard-working, and humble.
Are you talking about Amadou Gon Coulibaly?
Of course, since he will be elected president! [Laughter.]