mystery man

Côte d’Ivoire: How much influence does Soro exert despite his exile?

By Benjamin Roger

Posted on October 23, 2020 16:00

Ivory Coast presidential candidate Guillaume Soro holds news conference in Paris
Ivory Coast’s presidential candidate, former rebel leader and prime minister Guillaume Soro arrives to attend a news conference in Paris ahead of next month election, France, September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Less than ten days before an election in which his candidacy was invalidated and of which he swore would not take place, Guillaume Soro remains an unknown variable in the complex Ivorian equation. From his exile in Paris, can he still influence the ballot?

He doesn’t often express himself, but when he does, it’s a well-oiled machine. Viennese pastries and freshly squeezed orange juice to treat journalists, a perfectly orchestrated press conference, all broadcast live on social networks. On 17 September, in Paris, in the large reception room of the Bristol Hotel, where he has become accustomed to making his statements, Guillaume Soro is visibly at ease.

Smiling and relaxed in his navy blue double-breasted suit, the former president of the Ivorian National Assembly tackles his favourite targets: Alassane Ouattara and his plan for a third term, or the Constitutional Council which, a few days earlier, retooled his candidacy for the presidential election. Sure of himself, the former leader of the rebel Forces Nouvelles (New Forces) declared: “There will be no election on October 31 in Côte d’Ivoire”. “Say it, write it!” he urges his audience.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Guillaume Soro’s efforts to get back onto the ballot

In the aftermath, over in Abidjan, Henri Konan Bédié and the main opposition forces in turn speak to the press at headquarters of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). The 86 year-old “Sphinx of Daoukro”,  goes on the offensive. “In the face of Alassane Ouattara’s forfeiture, there is only one watchword: civil disobedience!”

Small victory

Soro and his entourage drink whey. Since his exile to Paris, the leader of Générations et peuples solidaires (GPS) gives the impression of setting the tone for the rest of the opposition. “He has been saying for a long time that the election cannot take place under these conditions. What he saw before the others, today everyone sees it. The entire opposition is now aligned with his position and united against Ouattara,” said one of his relatives.

Over at the Ivorian presidency, some recognise this. “Soro is doing well. He manoeuvres skillfully and manages to take the PDCI and the rest of the opposition in his direction. It remains to be seen whether he is the right one,” says a close collaborator of the head of state.

For someone who has been longtime ally of Ouattara before becoming one of his fiercest opponents, this is a small victory. In the eyes of his opponents who said he was politically dead just a few months ago, the child of Ferkessédougou recalled that he was still an actor to be reckoned with in the Ivorian political circle.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Deadlock eleven days before the election

Last December, after his abortive return to Abidjan, many thought he was a thing of the past. It was difficult to see, when he was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by the Ivorian justice system for attempted attack on the state and embezzlement of public funds, how he could continue to run for the supreme magistracy – not to mention the arrest of about twenty of his relatives, including several members of parliament.

On 28 April, his chances were permanently destroyed by his conviction to twenty years in prison and the deprivation of his civil rights for “embezzlement of public funds” and “money laundering”.

READ MORE Guillaume Soro: 20 year sentence is ‘attempt at political execution’

According to his lawyers, this was a political settling of scores that would lead to his removal from the electoral roll and, ultimately, the invalidation of his candidacy by the Constitutional Council.

‘On the side of the law’

Despite the blows and setbacks, Soro continues, to claim to anyone who will listen, that he remains a candidate for the next presidential election. Denouncing his dismissal and contesting all legal proceedings against him in Côte d’Ivoire, he assures “to be on the side of the right”. A legalistic stance reinforced by his successive victories over the Ivorian state before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

Seized in March by his defence, the Arusha court ruled in his favour several times. At the end of April, it asked the Ivorian authorities to temporarily suspend the arrest warrant against him. Then, in mid-September, the day after the Constitutional Council’s verdict, it issued a new order asking them to “take all necessary measures to immediately remove all obstacles preventing Guillaume Soro from enjoying his rights to elect and be elected.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo to be reinstated for polls says African human rights court

But in Abidjan, these decisions remain dead. Between Alassane Ouattara and his former supporter, the bridges are burnt. Since the mutinies that shook the army and shook his regime in 2017, the president, convinced that Soro has activated the mutineers behind the scenes, no longer trusts him. In the following months, their relationship only deteriorated. Refusing to join the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP), believing that the head of state was doing everything possible to marginalise him, Soro resigned in February 2019 and left Côte d’Ivoire.

“There is no longer anything political in his fight against Ouattara,” said a source who knows both men well. It is more of a personal psychodrama that does not concern the Ivorian people. Soro has always thought he was the best of his generation and has never swallowed not being chosen as a successor. “His entourage vigorously denies that the problem is he disagreed with the way the president managed the RHDP and disapproved of his “dictatorial conception of power”.

READ MORE Open letter on Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea: Africa needs new leaders

Those close to him say that the rest of history proved them right. They insist that Alassane Ouattara first said he would not run again before announcing in mid-August, after the death of his runner-up, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, that he was running for a third term, joining Guinean Alpha Condé in the club of presidents who are trying to stay in power after changing their constitution. Since his eldest son’s turnaround, Soro has multiplied attacks against this “outlaw who [wants] to remain president for life.”

‘Judicial harassment’

Annoyed by the virulent remarks of their former ally from Paris, Ouattara and his entourage are convinced that Soro is capable of anything to destabilise the institutions and prevent the election from taking place on 31 October. “He is nostalgic for the Forces Nouvelles. He is not in politics, he is still in the armed struggle. It’s in his DNA,” says a RHDP baron, who suspects Soro of wanting to “carry the guerrilla” in Côte d’Ivoire. “There is no doubt that he will try something. When a former rebel leader like him says such things from abroad, you have to be careful,” adds a senior security official.

The pro-Soro supporters defend him, denouncing the “judicial harassment” to which they are subjected to in Côte d’Ivoire and evoking a desire to “demonise” their mentor on the grounds that he would be “the most feared by the authorities. “Attempted coup at the end of 2019, now guerrilla warfare … Our opponents make the worst accusations against Guillaume Soro, but where is their evidence? If they had anything against him, they would have taken him out by now,” retorts one of his followers.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: ‘There are worrying signs of its political trajectory’

As the situation intensifies as elections approach, no one really knows how much weight Soro still carries in the defence and security forces. Some say that he still carries much influence, others say that the ex-communities will no longer follow him on a new adventure. A vagueness that maintains the uncertainty, and therefore the anxiety of his opponents, around a possible movement that would be favourable to him within the army. “It is impossible to know what he has in mind or what means he has at his disposal. But one thing is certain: the other opponents are betting on him to create the conditions for derailing the electoral process,” says a diplomatic source in Abidjan.

Interviews and lobbying

In recent months, Soro has become closer to the other opposition forces, starting with Henri Konan Bédié, but also Laurent Gbagbo, whom he wanted to drive out of power, and Pascal Affi N’Guessan. “He is in direct or indirect contact with each of them,” said one of his advisers. A way to remain, even at a distance, an actor of the heterogeneous front of “Everyone but Ouattara”. Therefore, during the various opposition meetings organised in Abidjan, or during the large unitary meeting at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny stadium on 10 October, GPS representatives were present.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire presidential election: Opposition threatens boycott

At the same time, Guillaume Soro is very active on social networks, where he relays calls for civil disobedience. He also gave a few interviews to French media – in which his jabs to Emmanuel Macron did not please the Elysée – and African media.

Above all, he lobbied Côte d’Ivoire’s international partners to denounce Ouattara’s “forgery” and the simmering socio-political crisis in the country. After a discreet return trip to Turkey in May, he worked with the U.S. Department of State to take a stand on the situation in Abidjan. He also traveled to Brussels in early October, where he met with Members of the European Parliament and members of the European Union Commission.

He has also approached various French elected officials from all sides, from Thierry Mariani to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and continues to rub shoulders with Alexandre Benalla, the sulfurous former chargé de mission of Emmanuel Macron’s firm.

Finally, he maintains his networks in the palaces of the continent. During his press conference in Bristol on September 17, he greeted Presidents Muhammadu Buhari, Mahamadou Issoufou, Macky Sall and Umaro Sissoco Embalo for their “recognized positions against third mandates”.

What political weight?

The question of its real political impact on the ground remains unanswered. At the end of October 2019, after the announcement of his candidacy for the presidency, Soro launched his “citizen movement”, GPS. One year later, he claims more than 400,000 members throughout Côte d’Ivoire.

READ MORE Cote d’Ivoire 2020 elections: Soro makes a bid for president

All this is bogus,” says an intimate acquaintance of Ouattara. Soro has no political weight. His only influence is on social networks and in the press. “GPS is an empty shell,” continues one of his detractors. Soro hasn’t done any implementation work, he has no local structures and therefore no real militant base. There is no comparison between the FPI or the PDCI.”

On 20 October, the GPS leader was released by Kanigui Soro, the president of the Rally for Côte d’Ivoire (Raci), who was one of his main allies and who called on his activists to vote for Alassane Ouattara. A “sellout” to the former Prime Minister’s followers, who maintain that their movement is present throughout the country.

“If we don’t weigh anything, why does Ouattara continue to arrest all our cadres?” Ironically, one of them refers to the members of the movement arrested in August in Abidjan and Korhogo during demonstrations against the third mandate.

Maquisard reflex

In recent weeks, the man has resumed his old Maquis reflexes. Only a handful of the faithful know exactly where he is. He prefers the telephone but limits his communication to the essentials, contenting himself with taking stock of the situation and giving instructions.

He sleeps little and sends messages in the middle of the night. What do they say? Who are they for? The exile maintains the mystery of his strategy. “One should not overestimate Guillaume Soro,” concludes one of his former companions on the road. “But neither should he be underestimated.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.