final combat

Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara and Bédié in the shadow of Houphouët-Boigny

By Vincent Duhem

Posted on October 1, 2020 16:29

At the start of the 1990s, both Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara served under President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Their relationship was already marked by distrust back then and “The Old One’s” manoeuvring had a lot to do with it.

On 7 February 1994, Côte d’Ivoire buried Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Thousands of people swarmed the ground floor of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro. The first lady, Marie-Thérèse, could be seen with a light black veil covering her face. Henriette Bédié held her by the arm, with her husband trailing closely behind.

Henri Konan Bédié was as proud as a peacock. He was now the country’s ruler and “The Old One’s” successor. A few months earlier, he had come out on the winning side of a power struggle pitting him against Alassane Ouattara.

The two men had crossed paths for the first time in the 1960s in the United States, where Ouattara was a young student. One day, his older brother Gaoussou introduced him to a former classmate from Bocanda primary school, in central Côte d’Ivoire. This ex-classmate, hardly 30 years old, was already Côte d’Ivoire’s ambassador to Washington. His name: Henri Konan Bédié.

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Ouattara returned home to Abidjan in 1990, when Houphouët appointed him prime minister. Up until that time, he had been working at the IMF and the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). Bédié, on the other hand, had pursued a gilded government career as economic and finance minister for the better part of a decade, until 1977, after which he moved on to the National Assembly from 1980 to 1993.

Although Houphouët opted to place Ouattara, an economist by profession, as prime minister, he did so mainly in response to the major social unrest rocking the country and as a way to improve its strained relations with international lenders. But “however decisive this argument may have been, it in no way means that a case cannot be made for some other motivation, and in particular Houphouët’s unspoken desire to use a newcomer as the last obstacle separating Bédié from an open path to succession”, wrote Frédéric Grah Mel in his biography about the father of Côte d’Ivoire’s independence.

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Yet, when Ouattara took over as prime minister, everything went smoothly. During the first months, his interactions with Bédié were cordial. The prime minister made sure to pay regular visits to his elder colleague to take stock of how the country was doing and the pair met with one another every Tuesday to prepare for cabinet meetings.

Houphouët made Bédié the government’s second-in-command and his constitutional successor but entrusted his prime minister with managing the country in his absence. Was the president’s strategy to divide and conquer? In Abidjan, the story goes that before leaving on a long trip, as was his predilection, he would summon Ouattara, Bédié and General Robert Gueï, his chief of staff, one by one. He would ask the first to monitor the second, the second to monitor the first and the third to keep an eye out on the first two.

As the months went by, the rivalry between the prime minister and the National Assembly president intensified. After giving Bédié his assurance that his role excluded any political dimension, Ouattara cast doubt on this promise when he said the following during an interview with Côte d’Ivoire’s national broadcaster, Radio Télévision Nationale (RTI), in October 1992: “All Ivorians can and must have the ambition to serve their country at the level they believe it to be appropriate.”

For Bédié, who had patiently bided his time in the corridors of power for so many years, this was unacceptable. He would use the National Assembly president’s platform as his outlet, delivering a particularly biting speech about the government’s policy. This was a declaration of war and it spread like wildfire through the highest levels of government. Each person was asked to choose their camp. Prominent families were ordered to take a side and some of them would remain divided for many years to come.

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“Political officials from the north were accused of supporting Ouattara, who, on his end, didn’t hesitate to eliminate the advantages certain officials benefitted from (like coffee and cocoa quotas) to dry up all of Bédié’s support,” said a person with deep knowledge of the era. “They both played a few dirty tricks on one another.”

The distrust got so bad that, one day, when the power was cut off in the building where Bédié lived – a lagoon-side tower nestled atop Cocody – his family members immediately blamed the prime minister. “These are power games,” Bédié would say later on.

Tension and a decidedly unhealthy atmosphere shaped the final months of Houphouët’s life. On 7 December 1993, Bédié had to overcome his calm, reserved nature to force Ouattara and his supporters to respect the constitution.

This war of succession left deep scars: Ouattara resented the northern officials who refused to join his Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, founded in 1994 following a split with the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), and Bédié plotted his revenge against those who preferred his rival over him. “You wanted to keep me from attaining the highest office of the land,” he told one such senior civil servant some years down the road as he sacked him.

In December 1994, Article 49 of the new electoral code stipulated that “the president of the Republic must be over forty years of age and Ivorian by birth, born of a father and of a mother themselves Ivorian by birth”. From that moment forward, Ouattara was excluded from political life. Opposition-led demonstrations were violently repressed. Five years down the line, Bédié was overthrown in a coup led by General Gueï. At the time, Bédié was convinced that Ouattara was somehow involved.

Thereafter, Bédié expressed his resentment and disdain towards his younger rival with no filter. “Anyhow, [Ouattara] was Burkinabé on his father’s side and still had Burkina Faso citizenship, so he shouldn’t have gotten mixed up in our succession issues,” he wrote in his book, Les Chemins de ma vie, released in 1999.

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