A coffee break is an ideal meeting time for someone as quietly frenetic as Frannie Léautier. At the end of a long day of her virtual meetings ... in several different time zones, we connect via the ubiquitous Zoom, sipping our East African coffee as we work through my lengthy roster of questions.
His schedule there is not much different from one year to the next. He stays at his flat in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, occasionally accompanies Henriette, his wife, to undergo thalassotherapy treatments at the Sofitel Quiberon in Brittany and visits old friends in the south-west.
The former president is above all a man of the soil. He flees the hubbub of Abidjan whenever he gets the chance and heads for Daoukro, whose calm atmosphere he loves and where he owns vast plantations.
White marble floors
This small town of 70,000 inhabitants has become the focal point of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). Its members go one after the other to the chief’s residence. HKB has called large meetings there, requisitioning one of the town’s hotels when necessary and organising the visits of dozens of journalists.
However, the former president has seen his daily life somewhat disrupted over the past year. The Covid-19 pandemic and the upheavals of Ivorian political life first forced him to give up his traditional stay in France. It has also been nearly six months since he has set foot in Daoukro.
In Abidjan, he lives in a villa given to him by the state (one of the benefits to which he is entitled as a former president), in the affluent district of Cocody Ambassade. It is a simple single-storey house, protected by a high surrounding wall and divided in two. His offices are on one side, while his private quarters, which are bedecked with white marble floors, are on the other. His neighbours include former Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré as well as the ambassadors of France and the UK.
It is in this aristocratic setting that one of the most important events in the aftermath of the presidential election took place. On 3 November 2020 at midday, elite units of the gendarmerie and the republican guard took up positions around the former head of state’s residence. A few hours later, around 20 people were arrested there.
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The authorities had decided to launch this operation following Pascal Affi N’Guessan, president of the Front Populaire Ivorien, and HKB’s refusal to take part in the 31 October election. As a result, Kouadio Konan Bertin (KKB) was the only candidate who ran against President Alassane Dramane Ouattara (ADO).
Encouraged by the opposition as a whole, the HKB and Affi N’Guessan called for civil disobedience and violent incidents marred the election, which they refused to recognise as legal. Convinced that ADO’s power was weakened, they had announced the creation of the Conseil National de Transition (CNT), with HKB at its head.
However, the day after, the CNT had been dissolved and, with it, HKB’s hopes. This election was to be his last fight. The only opportunity to take his revenge and to rediscover what Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, had bequeathed to him: power.
His watercolour portrait
HKB’s duel with ADO has come to a close. His social programme was never made public. The website hkb2020.com, whose domain name had been bought several months before his candidacy was made official, never saw the light of day.
On its still accessible home page, appears a watercolour portrait of HKB (aka the sphinx of Daoukro). In the background is the Félix Houphouët-Boigny stadium. The words “Coming soon” are written in white and green – the colours of the PDCI.
This incredible election cycle has only served to heighten the mystery surrounding HKB, the man who did everything and knew everything but whom no one seems to really understand. What was his strategy? Did he really have one? To the very end, the president of the PDCI remained ambiguous in his remarks and would often even remain completely silent as if he didn’t want to decide anything or take on responsibilities.
Four months after the election, the PDCI is still groggy. Its finances are not in good shape. For many of its members, the presidential election was a debacle. “His strategy was a failure. But the strength of civil disobedience in the Baoulé V and the low turnout in some areas of the south of the country show that the party can still rely on a solid foundation to rebuild itself,” says historian Arthur Banga.
The episode was not without consequences for HKB and his entourage. Sick with Covid-19 at the time, his wife was deeply affected by the police raid on their home on 3 November. “She is tired and disillusioned. She would like her husband to retire from political life,” says one of her confidants.
Two key members of the PDCI, Maurice Kakou Guikahué and Narcisse N’dri, have had a brush with the law. Finally released on parole, Guikahué, the party’s executive secretary, resumed his duties on 11 February. However, he must now share the limelight with Niamkey Koffi, who was in charge of coordinating the PDCI’s efforts for the 6 March legislative elections. Former chief of staff to HKB, to whom he has always been intellectually close, Koffi had until then acted as a speechwriter and sometimes as a spokesman.
N’dri is still in prison. According to our sources, the authorities accuse him of having played a central role in financing and organising the civil disobedience movement. To replace him, HKB has appointed Bernard Ehouman, who is none other than the treasurer of Servir, Henriette’s non-governmental organisation.
A “witch hunt”
Djénébou Zongo, the PDCI’s communications director, has been a key figure in HKB’s life for many years. However, she was dismissed by her boss the day after the election, under pressure from officials who accuse her of having passed on confidential information about the party’s strategy to the regime – accusations which she rigorously contests.
On 3 November, she narrowly escaped arrest, thanks to General Ouassénan Koné’s intervention. Since then, she has changed her phone number and lives very discreetly in Abidjan. “It’s a witch hunt and a settling of scores,” says someone close to HKB.
Despite this, the former president continues to run the party as if nothing has happened. “There is no sense of disappointment or bitterness in him. He has no regrets. He feels that he did the right thing, that he fought to the end. He believed that the international community would force Ouattara to make concessions, and he underestimated the capacity of the head of state’s security apparatus to stifle protests,” says someone else close to him.
“He is still in denial. He does not want to admit defeat,” says someone involved in the mediation between the two former allies, HKB and ADO.
“Bédié has been weakened by this election cycle. Internally, things are bubbling. No one is satisfied with his management, but he isn’t aware of the extent of the discontent. For the moment, nobody expresses it publicly, because the priority is the legislative elections [of March 6],” adds a party member.
Often tense exchanges
Although participation in these local elections was not the subject of much debate – the majority of the movement’s leaders and elected representatives were in favour of it – it created some misunderstanding among a few of the activists. “It is difficult to see any consistency with our strategy during the presidential election. We wonder if it was worth putting our lives in danger,” says a PDCI youth leader.
According to our sources, HKB is aware that this decision may have seemed inconsistent, but he felt that he had no other choice but to risk seeing his party fracture even more. “We know what the legislature is all about and what the empty-chair policy costs. What is at stake is the survival of the PDCI,” says an adviser to the former president.
After taking charge of a broad opposition coalition before the presidential election, HKB has, this time, favoured his alliance with former president Laurent Gbagbo. Despite some strategic differences, the two men talk regularly. The ‘sphinx of Daoukro’ continues to stipulate the return of the former president as one of the conditions for a normalisation of relations with ADO. He likes to say that apart from him, Gbagbo is the only one who really understands Ivorian politics.
Negotiations between the PDCI and Ensemble pour la Démocratie et la Souveraineté opposition coalition within the framework of the legislative process were long and often difficult. The two formations have formed a committee, which includes Émile Constant Bombet, Niamien N’Goran, Rémi Allah Kouadio, Assoa Adou and Sébastien Dano Djédjé.
HKB and Gbagbo then discussed the most sensitive cases, without always reaching an agreement. “Each wanted to assert his electoral weight. The exchanges were sometimes tense, but with more than 80% of candidates in common, we can be proud of our alliance. Even in 2011, when we had formed the alliance with the Rassemblement des Républicains, we had not reached such a percentage,” says a PDCI member.
In the coming months, the PDCI – which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in April – will hold its 13th congress. The last one was held in 2013.
What can be expected from it? “For years, Bédié has simply postponed substantive debates, particularly those concerning the governance of the party. The rupture with Alassane Ouattara had allowed him to put these issues on the back burner because the stakes were then higher. Today, we have to talk about it openly,” says another member of the PDCI.
Many people are calling for a major restructuring of the party’s bodies, in order to democratise their functioning and to give the new generations a fair share. Some were pleased to see that, in the run-up to the legislative elections, primaries were organised in many localities and that many new faces are emerging. Nevertheless, they call for strong measures, such as the re-establishment of an age limit for chairing the party. Initially set at 75, it was abolished by HKB in 2013.
“The PDCI cannot continue to operate in the same way. The old guard has to open up to the 40-60 generation. If they don’t make any effort to change things, there could be a mass exodus. Bédié is increasingly contested. But, as usual in the PDCI, we are waiting to see who will dare to go all the way and resist the internal machine,” says Banga.
Since the 1990s, before every PDCI congress, there has been no shortage of ambitious people dreaming of HKB’s retirement. Convinced that their time had come, that the failure of the movement’s strategy was an additional argument in their favour, they began to organise. Their names had already been mentioned before the presidential elections of October 2020.
Guikahué’s aspirations are an open secret. As executive secretary, he is considered the number two of the party. This position has allowed him to co-opt many people, but it has also caused resentment. His method of governance is criticised by many executives and elected officials.
Very discreet during the last election, Jean-Louis Billon was particularly active this time. It was he who negotiated the reopening of the party’s headquarters during the days following the arrest of around 20 people on 3 November.
Patrice Kouame Kouadio, a member of parliament representing Yamoussoukro, also hopes to make his voice heard. A big-toothed business lawyer and great friend of Senegal’s Yérim Sow – the CEO of the Teyliom Group – he was the only one who had openly opposed HKB’s candidacy.
Once presented as a possible successor to HKB, N’Goran was weakened by his defeat in the 2016 legislative elections in Daoukro. He should nevertheless play an important role in the post-HKB period.
Finally, Yasmina Ouegnin is making a notable comeback in the party. Following a disagreement with HKB, the daughter of Houphouët-Boigny had distanced herself from the movement.
KKB did not agree with HKB’s decision to run for president – a crime of lèse majesté – but he still talks about the possibility of taking over the party’s leadership.
Looking to the future?
The history of the PDCI does not, however, prove that those who call for change are in the right. The movement has never been in the habit of questioning itself. Since Houphouët-Boigny’s death, all those who have tried to hold a debate with HKB over his method of governance have had to either resign themselves to the way things are or walk away.
The years go by and the oldest political party in Côte d’Ivoire still hasn’t managed to get rid of its sometimes archaic functioning, where Akan culture reigns and where one does not dare contradict the chief or try to take his place.
HKB has always taken advantage of this tradition to establish his authority gradually. “One has the impression that its members are constantly drowning. No one wants to be the one who killed their father. The risk, in case of bad results in the legislative vote, is that someone will have to scrape the party up off the floor,” says a diplomat posted in Abidjan.
Like ADO and Gbagbo in their respective camps, HKB remains the PDCI’s tutelary figure. According to several sources, he does not intend to step down, for the moment, as leader of the movement. He may, however, decide to reshape its executive secretariat.
“He has no choice but to prepare for the future. The problem is that no person stands out. Thierry Tanoh and Tidjane Thiam seem to be retreating. Billon still lacks consistency. Charles Konan Banny, Ouassénan or Bombet are too old. Guikahué has made too many enemies. And also, who is ready to put 1bn CFA francs ($1.8m) into the party every year, as HKB has been doing for two decades?” asks someone close to HKB and his wife.
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