Côte d’Ivoire: Can Ouattara break into this opposition bastion?

By Florence Richard in Yamoussoukro
Posted on Thursday, 15 October 2020 13:08

Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, à Yamoussoukro
Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, à Yamoussoukro © Xinhua/ZUMA/REA

In Yamoussoukro, a stronghold of the opposition PDCI, the call for civil disobedience issued by the opposition has a certain amount of appeal ahead of the 31 October presidential election. However, the ruling government hasn’t given up on wooing this city that is equal parts symbolic and diverse.

The third floor of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Foundation for Peace Research features an unobstructed view of Yamoussoukro. Looking west, the dome of the majestic Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, an even larger replica of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is bathed in sunlight.

Looking east, you can make out the edges of the Hôtel Président tower, which houses a panoramic restaurant on its rooftop – a favourite spot for affluent Ivorians when they’re visiting Côte d’Ivoire’s administrative capital.

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At the foot of the Foundation – an imposing building that took 10 years to build and whose floor is made of marble imported from France, Portugal and Spain – the geometric shapes of its vast French-style gardens stretch across hundreds of metres.

It’s here, on the third floor, where you’ll find Secretary General Jean-Noël Loucou’s office. The room is decorated with portraits of the former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. In one corner, an easel displays a detailed map of the city of Yamoussoukro as the father of Côte d’Ivoire’s independence had envisioned it. “Not much has been built since his passing and what he left behind hasn’t been maintained,” says Loucou, who formerly served as Henri Konan Bédié’s chief of staff.

A feeling of neglect

He offers up the example of the secondary school specialising in science – “what a brilliant idea to bring all the best students under one institution of excellence!” – now falling apart and unsafe. Thirty-seven years after the vote to relocate the capital from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, the stronghold of Houphouët-Boigny, who turned his home town into the site of lavish construction projects at a cost that has never really been revealed, Loucou describes “a feeling of neglect that is fuelling the residents’ anger”.

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At the end of September, President Alassane Ouattara celebrated the rehabilitation of 49 kilometres worth of roads, the state of which had become a nightmare for the city’s taxi drivers, who were forced to zigzag between gaping holes.

Forty-nine kilometres (a hundred more kilometres worth of improvements are set to follow) and a promise – yet another one – to “revive” the capital. With less than 20 days to go until the presidential election, and while the campaign doesn’t officially begin until 15 October, the opposition has denounced a charm offensive seeking to win over voters from this Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) stronghold.

“People don’t have any faith left, and if they do, their heart isn’t in it anymore,” a resident says. “Any initiative contributing to the development of our city is warmly welcomed, but the question is: why now?”

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Next to one of these freshly repaved roads, in a room inside the city hall where music rings out as the municipal orchestra rehearses, Issiaka Saba, president of the Yamoussoukro City Youth Organisation, quips in a calm, collected voice: “My second term is coming to a close and I won’t be serving a third one.”

After participating in Ouattara’s campaign in 2010, Saba is now backing the PDCI. “We were seeking out recognition, but we never got it. Though, my Malinke friends, who didn’t have the same level of education as some of us, had their work cut out for them. That was an ethnic choice. We have been forgotten and it has impacted young people a lot.”

The young man confirms that he plans to protest Ouattara’s third term: “We have the right to demonstrate peacefully in the streets. We simply want to show that we’re not OK with his decision.”

On Saturday, 10 October, Saba was in the stands at Abidjan’s Félix-Houphouët-Boigny Stadium during the meeting held by the opposition.

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He listened attentively to the speeches delivered by the movement’s leaders and is currently awaiting their instructions. “First, you have to prepare people’s minds,” he says. When the president made his announcement that he would stand for a third term, Yamoussoukro was relatively calm, aside from a few burnt tyres.

A capital that has yet to move

While campaigning in the Lacs region in 2010, Ouattara promised to move to Yamoussoukro right after his election and make the capital’s relocation a reality. Although some work has been carried out or launched, such as projects like the stadium set to host the Africa Cup of Nations in three years, the National Judicial Training Institute and a vast industrial zone, the big move has not been made. Embassies, ministries, institutions and all other seats of power and decision-making are still based in Abidjan.

“In the end, for now, the capital relocation is just taking place in my building!” Loucou says, smiling.

One of the Foundation’s two auditoriums occasionally hosts senators and there are offices for the president of the Republic on the fourth floor, while Augustin Thiam, governor of the autonomous district of Yamoussoukro since 2011, has an office on the first floor. Thiam, Houphouët-Boigny’s great-nephew, joined the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP, the incumbent party) in the early 2000s, promising to establish ties with the Baoulé chiefdom, which has maintained a significant hold over voters.

“When Ouattara first took office, he had other urgent matters to deal with, the country was in a sorry state and the priorities shifted,” Thiam says. “But a lot of roads were built, particularly the motorway that connects Abidjan to Yamoussoukro in two and a half hours, and progress has been made in many areas.”

The Ivorian capital, with a population of around 400,000, represents a modest constituency of less than 100,000 voters (85,000 in 2018). “It shouldn’t be elevated to a status that it doesn’t have,” says Fréderic Grah Mel, Houphouët-Boigny’s leading biographer.

A symbol of past glory

But the city has a symbolic significance.

It’s where Houphouët-Boigny’s legacy lives on – Bédié was his minister and successor, and Ouattara was his prime minister for three years. “Yamoussoukro is still the site of Houphouëtist rule and symbolises the glory of Côte d’Ivoire during that period. The fact that the country became unstable after Houphouët-Boigny’s departure has fuelled idealistic and nostalgic rhetoric about him and made Yamoussoukro an important place in the collective and political imagination,” says sociologist and political analyst Rodrigue Koné.

While home to a large Baoulé community, Yamoussoukro retains its character as a very cosmopolitan city. Many Malinke people left northern Côte d’Ivoire in the 1960s to help build the city and ended up staying. Others came later on, during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis, and nationals of other ECOWAS countries have also moved to the city. Taken together, they currently make up half of the capital’s residents, whereas surrounding villages continue to be almost exclusively Baoulé.

‘City of dialogue’

In the city where Bédié and Ouattara forged an alliance between the two rounds of the 2010 election during a ceremony held at Houphouët’s residence, the ties between the two camps remain unbroken. Rather, “Yamoussoukro sets itself apart by being a city of dialogue. It is still often managed in a traditional fashion. Even ECOWAS nationals have their own chiefdoms here. For instance, the Togolese have their own chief and we speak to one another,” says Thiam, who is also the chief of the Akoué canton under the name Nanan Boigny N’Dri 3. In 2015 Ouattara created the National Chamber of Kings and Traditional Chiefs and its members now enjoy an official status and government protection.

Jean Kouacou Gnrangbé Kouadio (PDCI), Yamoussoukro’s mayor for the past 20 years, expresses a similar sentiment: “Politics doesn’t divide us, everyone talks to one another here.” Kouadio was in charge of Ouattara’s campaign in Yamoussoukro in 2010.

In 2018 he was re-elected with more than 60% of the vote, beating the RHDP candidate. “Yamoussoukro is a village, everyone knows one another and we keep in touch,” says Yaya Ouattara, municipal delegate for RHDP, who is campaigning for Ouattara. “Just yesterday I was in contact with PDCI’s representative. And if there are going to be opposition demonstrations here, they will be calm. We won’t intervene. We’ll let democracy do its thing,” he says.

Alongside his team, he “worked painstakingly” to encourage a large number of RHDP supporters to register to vote ahead of the 31 October presidential election. By his count, the municipality has more than 30,000 registered voters, a large portion of whom, he hopes, will vote for the incumbent president.

From his office at the Foundation and despite these assurances, Loucou can’t help but feel worried: “When you combine the absence of dialogue with the radicalisation of the opposition and the ruling government, it doesn’t bode well. Each side is standing their ground and it seems difficult to reverse the trend so close to the election.”

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