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Côte d’Ivoire : How much influence can Soro wield despite his distance?

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Thursday, 21 January 2021 11:28

Guillaume Soro, in Paris on September 17, 2020 © REUTERS / Charles Platiau

In exile, the former president of the National Assembly maintains his strategy: by taking a tough stance and refusing to give in to Alassane Ouattara. But will he be able to maintain his position on the Ivorian political chessboard, despite the distance?

One day in Brussels, another in Geneva, the third in Paris… Lately, Guillaume Soro has been restless. Few people really know where he is. Only his inner circle know his whereabouts. And even then, not every day. Wherever he is, there’s nothing more to say on the subject. It appears as if the spirited 45 year-old has resumed his old clandestine habits, forged in the days when he led the Forces Nouvelles rebellion.

“We communicate essentially by messages and video-conferencing. When we get him on the phone, we don’t ask him where he is,” says one of his colleagues. In this secret atmosphere, social media serves as one of the rare openings to the outside world, and particularly to Côte d’Ivoire. The former president of the National Assembly continues to distill his messages there.

His latest post was a video in which he wished everyone a happy New Year. In it, he also tried to curry favour with President Alassane Ouattara, whose re-election to a third term he refuses to acknowledge.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Guillaume Soro calls on army to block Alassane Ouattara

Just a few weeks ago, Soro was living quietly in his Parisian home. He spent most of his time there and held his press conferences at the Hotel Bristol, a luxury hotel just a few metres away from the Elysée Palace. However the day after the announcement of Ouattara’s victory, one of his speeches proved to be a game-changer. Broadcasting live from the Internet, he addressed the defence and security forces and asked them to block Ouattara. In short, he called for a military coup.

Crossing the line

But in Abidjan, many believe the former warlord has gone too far. Paris has come to the same opinion, following his incendiary remarks against Emmanuel Macron’s position on the Ivorian situation. “The French authorities sent him the message that there were limits and that he was no longer welcome on its national territory. A call to take up arms crosses the line. We could hardly tell him anything else,” says a high-ranking French source. Soro was therefore asked to leave.

In his entourage, no one denies the substance of his argument, but some admit to a lack of tact on his part. “Perhaps he could have expressed himself more subtly. In this case, his appeal to the military was too direct and it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including the French,” says one member of his inner circle. The latter would like to specify that this speech had, moreover, “been made in agreement with Henri Konan Bédié (HKB) and the leaders of the CNT [the National Transitional Council, established by the opposition], who asked him to take over because they were under pressure in Abidjan.”

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

On the shores of the Ebrié lagoon, it would be an understatement to say that the Soro case antagonises people. The president considers his former ally as one of the main threats facing his country, however remote it may be. He tolerates his noisy outbursts less and less. At the end of November, Ivorian arrest warrants against Soro, his director of communication, Moussa Touré, his aide-de-camp, Abdoulaye Fofana, and deputy Issiaka Fofana – all in exile – were transmitted to the French authorities.

Requests for arrest have so far gone unheeded. At the end of 2019, when the Ivorian authorities first issued an international arrest warrant for Soro, Interpol felt that the evidence against him did not justify its direct application. “In short, these warrants constitute a non-negligible political message, but they are not a sufficient basis to initiate coercive judicial measures,” said a French official.

Weapons’ caches and telephone interceptions

Although he has temporarily moved away from Paris, Soro continues to travel back and forth to France without being worried. His colleagues, who readily point out that Interpol does not enforce international arrest warrants with “political connotations”, also mention that their boss has a valid Schengen visa.

“Nobody knows what these arrest warrants are based on. Nobody has seen them. We don’t even know if they exist. Our Ivorian colleagues asked for these arrest warrants to be sent to them, but this was never done,” say Charles Consigny and Robin Binsard, Soro’s French lawyers. “Our client has nothing to reproach himself for. The legal proceedings brought against him are fanciful and not based on any serious allegations. Their sole purpose was to exclude him from the presidential election last October.”

The former prime minister – already sentenced to 20 years in prison for receiving embezzled public funds and money laundering in April 2020 – is now accused by the Ivorian authorities of having attempted to destabilise the last election cycle. According to some of Ouattara’s colleagues, the charges against him are serious. “He was preparing an armed insurrection,” a minister said. “People were arrested and sent to the chopping block, particularly in Dabou [where 16 people were killed in inter-community violence a few days before the presidential election of 31 October]. Members of this militia told investigators that they were recruited and armed by people linked to Guillaume Soro.”

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: What Ouattara has in store for his third term

According to senior Ivorian officials, other people recruited by the opposition have been arrested elsewhere in the country, including some army personnel. In their exchanges with their French counterparts, Ivorian authorities have also referred to weapons caches and telephone interceptions of Soro and/or his colleagues, citing military preparations before the presidential election.

A failed strategy?

Accusations that make the entourage of the president of Générations et peuples solidaires (GPS) smile, as they flatly deny any attempt at destabilisation. “They blame him for all the evils that have taken place since 2019, they say they have evidence, but they do not provide anything to anyone. It’s astonishing, isn’t it?” said one of his collaborators, sarcastically.

“During the proceedings before the ACHPR [African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Soro won twice against the Ivorian authorities in 2020] and the IPU [Inter-Parliamentary Union], the Ivorian state had the opportunity to justify the prosecution of Guillaume Soro and his allies. It didn’t happen. Perhaps because in reality, the Ivorian justice system has no evidence against our client,” his lawyers said.

In any case, it is hard to imagine Soro returning to Côte d’Ivoire any time soon. One crucial question remains: how long can he last in exile? No worries, answer his colleagues. “He had prepared himself and his inner circle for this scenario,” says one of his confidants. “Financially, he has enough to live on. Nor should we forget that during all those years at the head of Ivorian institutions, he has helped people to become who they are. Today, he is benefiting from having helped these people in high places.”

His address book, filled with the names of politicians as well as businessmen, stretches across the African continent to the US, through Europe and Turkey. Among his discreet benefactors are also some African heads of state, with whom he still has ties. “Since Ouattara’s sham re-election, we have acquired a lot of new supporters in the sub-region,” says a member of Soro’s team.

For the leader of the GPS, the challenge is to continue to exist in the Ivorian political scene despite the distance. His strategy is simple: remain resolute and not give in to Ouattara. He has been sticking to it for months. “Guillaume Soro is logical and coherent in his political approach. He will not deny himself and will not step on the bodies of those who died for democracy in our country,” says one of his advisers. “He has an ideal for change that he holds dear. As he reminded us in his speech on 1 January, he will not compromise in any way.”

His opponents on the other hand, believe that his strategy has failed and that he is now more and more isolated. “He is totally neutralised. He played the card of the illegitimate candidacy of the president. He even went so far as to call for a coup d’état. Today, he is all alone, attacking someone close to Alassane Ouattara. He has not managed to unify the opposition, nor to embody the generational change in Côte d’Ivoire. The truth is that his popularity and political weight are far less than he imagined.”

No candidates for the legislative elections

While the main opposition parties – led by the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) and the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) – entered into discussions with the government in December and announced their willingness to participate in legislative elections on 6 March, Soro and the GPS refuse to field candidates. “The conditions have not been met. Nothing has changed since the presidential election: the IEC [Independent Electoral Commission] is the same, the Constitutional Council is the same and there has been no electoral redistribution,” he said. “The GPS will not present a candidate, but neither will it call for a boycott in the name of oppositional unity.”

This approach may seem contradictory but it is justified, given the challenges faced by the party in Côte d’Ivoire. “Even if we wanted to, it would be difficult for us to stand in the elections. Ouattara has destroyed our party. Our president is in exile, we no longer have a seat and several of our staff are in prison,” said our source. Arrested more than a year ago, MP Alain Lobognon, Souleymane Kamagaté Koné (aka “Soul to Soul”), Soro’s director of protocol, and his two younger brothers, Simon and Rigobert, are still in prison.

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

According to his staff, the authorities are also trying to siphon off the “Soroist” troops. First Soro Kanigui, who rallied behind Ouattara just before the presidential election, and now another of his colleagues has just abandoned him: Alphonse Soro announced that he now supports the head of state.

“We are all regularly approached by people from the RHDP [Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace, in power] who try to win our loyalty. Except that, unlike some, we have principles,” said one of Soro’s allies. Despite these difficulties, their boss is actively working on structuring GPS. The goal: to unveil a new framework of his organisation in the coming weeks, so as to be able to continue to exist in the political field.

Although focused on his own projects, Soro continues to maintain ties with the other opposition leaders. According to one of his colleagues, he is in regular contact with former presidents HKB and Laurent Gbagbo. “We must not lie to each other: everyone has their own objectives,” he said. “So they are not obliged to appreciate or trust each other, but they are all obligated to respect a certain unity of action.”

In the Ivorian backwater, alliances are made as quickly as they come undone, depending on the interests of the moment. But Soro, however weakened, has a major advantage: time. At only 49 years old, the ‘enfant terrible’ from Ferkessédougou has all the time in the world to achieve his ultimate dream of becoming president of Côte d’Ivoire. However, he will still have to demonstrate a quality that he has not always been able to show: patience.