Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara starts third term by jailing opposition leader
Since his arrest for his role in creating the National Transitional Council, the president of the FPI party, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, has taken on a new status as an opposition figure after joining Henri Konan Bédié’s call for “civil disobedience”. By jailing him, President Ouattara may have simply given him an extra veneer of credibility.
The video was shot in close-up.
His eyes look tired. He isn’t wearing his usual glasses, but is dressed in the same black polo shirt he donned during his last public appearance a few days ago, as spokesperson for the National Transitional Council (CNT).
“Today is Sunday, 8 November 2020. I’m alive and well. I haven’t been tortured […]. I don’t want my wife and children to worry about me.” He lets out a forced laugh as a person behind the camera keeps telling him what to say. Pascal Affi N’Guessan yields to the hastily-made video, which in all likelihood he doesn’t have much choice about.
Taped in an office of the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) in Abidjan, this surprising video serves as proof that the former prime minister is still alive. Immediately posted on Ivorian social media, the video was meant to stamp out rumours being spread about his death since that morning in the cities and towns lying along the Ébrié lagoon.
Arrested and incarcerated
Thirty-six hours earlier, on Friday night, the legally recognised president of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) was arrested after being intercepted in a vehicle in Akoupé while en route to his home town, Bongouanou, in the Moronou region. The arrest brought several days of hiding to an end, a period during which no one aside from members of his inner circle knew of his whereabouts.
N’Guessan, 67, vanished on Tuesday afternoon as law enforcement had freshly arrested around 20 of Bédié’s close associates and surrounded Bédié’s home in Cocody. Simultaneously, the same security operation had set up shop around N’Guessan’s villa, in the La Riviera neighbourhood, and around the homes of other CNT leaders, including Albert Mabri Toikeusse, who no one has heard from since.
Absent when the gendarmerie arrived outside his home, located a stone’s throw from that of Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko, N’Guessan decided not to go back home. He let his wife Angeline, who had stayed at home, know, turned off his phone and went into hiding. According to his entourage, he never “intended to flee” the country, such as to neighbouring Ghana, nor did he try to take refuge at the South African embassy, as some have suggested.
Public prosecutor Richard Adou said that the CNT spokesperson was “actively being sought” by the authorities. Just as the other leaders of this parallel structure set up by the opposition after Alassane Ouattara announced his plans to stand for re-election for a third term, he is accused of committing acts of sedition “constitut[ing] an attack on and conspiracy against the authority of the state and national territorial integrity”. According to our sources, on Monday he went before a special investigation unit judge who notified him of the charges being brought against him and was incarcerated immediately afterwards.
Target of criticism
No one would have imagined a few months back that N’Guessan’s presidential election campaign would end like this. After his attempt at the beginning of the year at rapprochement with Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters (the famous “Gbagbo or nothing” [GOR] faction) failed, he decided to stand for election. Many people – starting with his rivals in the pro-Gbagbo wing of the FPI – accused him at the time of being in cahoots with the government, readily calling him the regime’s “convenient opponent”.
In mid-September, N’Guessan was one of four candidates whose presidential bids were approved by the Constitutional Council. But on 18 September, when Bédié and the main opposition leaders called on Ivorians to practice civil disobedience in response to “Ouattara’s abuse of power”, he was the only one who didn’t go along with the initiative.
After several rounds of talks, and especially thanks to those who contacted Gbagbo and advocate opposition unity to stand up to Ouattara, the FPI candidate ultimately supported the call for civil disobedience one week later.
“He came under a lot of criticism but he has always been very coherent,” said Geneviève Goëtzinger, his French spokesperson. “He has been a legalist from the start. First, he tried to play the institutional game by attempting to reform the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI). Then, when the Constitutional Council unveiled the list of candidates, he understood that Ouattara wasn’t going to give his rivals a chance. At that point he supported the opposition’s call for civil disobedience, but once again from a legalist standpoint, in order to defend the Constitution.”
As days went by, N’Guessan took on a sizeable role within the opposition front against Ouattara. Alongside his ally and elder, Bédié, he showed his determination to block the president’s third term, participating in interviews and press conferences.
After it was announced that Ouattara had won the election with more than 94% of the vote, the CNT was created with the purpose of establishing a transitional government that will organise new “free, inclusive and transparent” elections. The two opponents who refused to take part in the 31 October presidential election, calling on their fellow citizens to “actively boycott” the race, divided up their roles: Bédié would be president and N’Guessan spokesperson.
“It couldn’t have been any other way. He is entitled to this particular position because his candidacy had been approved, but even so he decided to defend our republican institutions,” said an official from the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI).
Over the course of several days, in his new role as official spokesperson of the CNT, the ex-prime minister continued to attack Ouattara and condemn his re-election. “He demonstrated an unwavering commitment to our efforts and displayed utter poise in his role as spokesperson. He’s in his element in the opposition front,” one of his supporters said.
Will this be enough to finally smooth out his old differences with the pro-Gbagbo faction and reunite both wings of the FPI? His relations with the former president, who lives in Brussels pending the appeal verdict of his case with the International Criminal Court (ICC), have grown less contentious.
In recent weeks, the two men have spoken several times over the phone. Currently in prison, like his mentor before him, N’Guessan could, once all is said and done, have the status of an opposition leader now that he has also paid a personal price for his political activism.