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Every Ivorian must have a dream, and a common future

By Nicholas Norbrook in Abidjan
Posted on Thursday, 3 May 2012 11:53

In power since April 2011, President Alassane Ouattara faces a raft of problems that will occupy his first term in office: establishing security, putting the country on the path to reconciliation, seeking justice for victims of the country’s decade of political violence and rehabilitating the economy.

Sobered by a night fielding calls from peers concerned about the whereabouts of the Malian president, Amadou Toumani Touré, a preoccupied President Alassane Ouattara politely pushes back the interview 24 hours. An emphasis on punctuality and hard work has permeated the new administration. Concern about the ability of a seemingly aloof technocrat to tackle Côte d’Ivoire’s myriad problems misjudges Ivorians’ fatigue with the populism of Laurent Gbagbo.

Memories of Côte d’Ivoire’s role as regional economic leader in the 1980s and 1990s are not nostalgic. The government raised 160bn CFA francs ($240m) on regional capital markets in August and September 2011, attesting to investor belief in the potential for a fast turnaround in Côte d’Ivoire. The country has a comparatively deep pool of human capital and shabby but solid infrastructure and industrial bases.

The region extended another vote of confidence by electing Ouattara as chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in mid-February. The regional organisation is fast-tracking a slew of projects such as the Lagos-Dakar highway, electrical interconnections and anti-­piracy operations, even if the coup in Mali is on the top of the agenda. Building stronger links between Anglophone and Francophone Africa is also something Ouattara wants to work on, with the Abuja-Abidjan axis a new dynamic in West Africa.

But challenges at home will take up at least as much energy as restoring Côte d’Ivoire’s international image. There is a deep historical legacy to work through. First the French, then independence-era president Félix Houphouët-Boigny encouraged Malinké, Sénoufo and other northern peoples from Burkina Faso and Mali to work in Côte d’Ivoire. In some areas, they outnumber the indigenous populations. When there was enough money to go around, tensions were in check. When the cocoa market collapsed in the early 1990s and the CFA franc was devalued in 1994, however, the money that had oiled the wheels of communal relations vanished. In its place appeared the toxic notion of Ivoirité.

From exclusion 
to the presidency
1942 Born in Dimbokro

1984-1988 Africa director at IMF
1988 Governor of BCEAO

1990 Appointed PM of Côte d’Ivoire

1995 New electoral code bars him from running

Aug 1999 Elected as head of RDR
Dec 1999 President Bedié ousted in coup

2002 Rebels en route to Abidjan stopped halfway
2010 Wins the elections against Gbagbo
2011 Ouattara is inaugurated on 21 May 2011

The years of exclusion and discrimination that followed sowed the seeds for the northern rebellion in 2003 that failed to unseat President Laurent Gbagbo and brought a near-decade of ‘neither war nor peace’ and culminated in a dramatic siege of Gbagbo’s residence following his defeat at the December 2010’s elections, which he refused to recognise.

That leaves President Ouattara with two main challenges: in the short term, security, and in the longer term, healing the country of its chauvinist identity politics. The first is underway, with residents of the major cities and drivers on the main arteries seeing a real improvement.

Also read: Africa – Why Francophones are lagging behind Anglophones

Getting beyond the ethnic labels that were the building blocks of politics for so long is proving harder. Many southerners complain that the new government is filling the administration with northerners. The Commission Dialogue, Vérité et Réconciliation is still labouring to get underway, but Ouattara says he is convinced of the importance of minority rights. Though his party, the Rassemblement des Républicains, won majorities in Gagnoa, Daloa and Soubré, Ouattara instructed the local authorities to install a Bété mayor, much to his own party’s disapproval. “You have to protect minorities. If we had elected a Malinké in Gagnoa and Daloa, they would have felt frustrated. We are not yet at the level where ethnicities mix easily, so you have to protect minorities,” argues Ouattara.

In such a polarised environment, Ouattara will almost always be accused of bias. The government’s late- 2011 skirmish with the press will not have helped the image problem. But the administration plans to bank on growth and welfare improvements to lead Ivorians away from the negativity of recent years. “Ivorians must see they have a common future,” says Ouattara.

The Africa Report: The region is facing serious security challenges, how can they be addressed?

Alassane Ouattara: For ECOWAS, peace and security are a prior- ity. My mandate as head of ECOWAS will reflect this and will bring fresh re- sources to bear on the problem. When it comes to Nigeria and the terrorist problems linked to Boko Haram, President Goodluck Jonathan has explained the active measures being taken, which include rebalancing Nigeria and addressing questions of poverty in the north. This was actually one of the reasons he pushed for the end of the fuel subsidy, in order to free up resources for social spending in the north. The military have bulked up strategic and operational planning, and we are seeing results. When it comes to Mali, it is a seizure of power by force, which we condemn, which we do not accept. Miltary coups in our region will not be tolerated anymore.

Given these challenges, isn’t it time we had a strong ECOWAS intervention force? The Nigerian writer Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe said that the sight of a French helicopter firing rounds into an Ivorian bunker was a regressive symbol.

This is the talk of an intellectual. A helicopter is a helicopter, and the UN had given its mandate. After the killings perpetuated by Laurent Gbagbo against Ivorians and after the massacre of 3,000 people, the UN gave its mandate – not to attack anyone, just to take out the heavy weaponry. So after this, the armies were equal, which led to the departure of Laurent Gbagbo. As a result, fewer people died. There would have been tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people killed if it had continued be- cause Laurent Gbagbo is a murderer, he has proved it. Abidjan has around six million people in it, there would have been a civil war in Abidjan, and it would have been worse than Rwanda. So intellectual chatter is all very well, I personally render homage to France and the UN, and particularly to Nicolas Sarkozy and Ban Ki-moon.

Since the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, we have seen lots of arms and money spilling into the Sahel. What can be done to counter it?

The manner in which Gaddafi’s life was ended was atrocious. Now, the Libyan authorities have to move towards the respect of human rights and equitable justice for prisoners. To counter the flow of weapons, Niger has shown the way. It received Libyan refugees, but in each case the army of Niger disarmed them before they entered. This needs to be done by all the neighbouring countries. I am told that unfortunately this was not done in Mali, and this is one of the reasons why it is suffering today.

Nigeria supported you in the African Union during the post-electoral dispute. Is there a strategic axis emerging between Abidjan and Abuja?

We recognise the leadership of Nigeria in West Africa. After many difficulties, Nigeria has managed to have democratic elections. And Goodluck Jonathan was the one to defend the free and fair elections that brought me to the presidency of Côte d’Ivoire. I appreciate that, and we will continue to fight for democracy together. I also reserved my first foreign visit for Nigeria, to mark my gratitude, but also to build greater links with Nigeria. Beyond diplomacy, we want to build up our economic relationship. ECOWAS represents 30% of SubSaharan Africa’s GDP, and Nigeria is over half of ECOWAS. So it’s a large market, and we are basing our own growth on vigorous trade with Nigeria.

Can the smaller emerging partners like Turkey provide a counterweight to China, in the same way that China provides a counterweight to the West?

We are not trying to limit China’s influence. We want to have relationships with a whole range of countries. You speak of Turkey, which is a large country, but Côte d’Ivoire has no embassy there. In the next few months we will open an embassy in Turkey. With regard to India, I have the good fortune to know the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh]. We worked in Washington together, and we are developing a strong relationship with Brazil. We need to determine clearly what our development strategy is. There are two important axes: commerce and investment, especially private investment. So we need to get China, India and Brazil investing in Côte d’Ivoire – they have the financial muscle and the appropriate technologies – and of course Europe and the US too.

Also read: Akufo Addo – Ghana’s democracy is on trial

But we will only attract these resources if we do our homework, by having a stable macroeconomic environment and creating one of the best business climates in Africa, by having a cleaned-up legal system and a state of law, which most people will tell you we are moving forward with. So we want to guarantee not only physical security, but also financial security, the possibility to move your funds in and out freely, not harassing investors over terms and tax.

Africans pay too much for their phone and energy bills, with international companies ‘gold-plating’ contracts…

We have to stop the monopolies. I don’t want to accuse anyone, but here in Côte d’Ivoire, we are realising that, among the telephone companies, there was absolutely no transparency. I won’t say more. First of all, we have asked the phone companies to increase their investment, so that their networks will be more reliable. And second, we have asked them to work on lowering their costs. I don’t want to have to create a national telephone company to provide competition, but we told them that their tax regime is not onerous, so we have to see some progress. At the end of all that we do, it has to be about the Ivorian consumer getting a better deal.

Can you assess where you think you are on the strategic goals you set after your inauguration?

Firstly, on the economy, we have progressed very well, ahead of schedule. When it comes to security, there have been problems, but in the past two months things have settled down and there has been real progress. People forget that less than a year ago we had a war here, with air strikes and heavy weapons. After that we had militias, young folk who had taken up arms, so the disarmament process has not been easy.

When it comes to the question of human rights, things are progressing. The Commission Nationale d’Enquête will finish its inquiry in a month or two, and from there we will put into practice its conclusions. Justice will be allowed to follow its course, there will not be any discrimination.

Then there remains the question of reconciliation. Now, both parties need to be willing for reconciliation to hap- pen. I have given all the signs I can – I have asked the FPI [Front Populaire Ivoirien] to join the government. They refused. I asked them to participate in the legislative elections. They didn’t want to. I talked to them and explained that not to participate was a mistake. They didn’t listen. But some now are returning into the political process as independents, and they are large enough to form a bloc in parliament of former FPI adherents. There are around eleven of them, so they at least will be present in parliament. These are the moderates – but we also have the extremists, all those who are still in Ghana and other African countries, be they civilians or soldiers, who dream of one day destabilising the regime. These are fantasists who are wasting their time, but I will continue to keep the door open.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a model of its kind. Is Côte d’Ivoire’s version active enough?

It is there, and it is significant – it is costing our budget 2bn CFA francs. And you know it only has been in place since September, so just six to seven months. It has to be organised and set up. I called in the chairman of the commission [Charles Konan Banny] so that he could explain his schedule, and we ironed out the financing of the committee. But he agreed with me that we had to give priority to the victims. Those who are responsible for violent or economic crimes will face justice. Those we need to look out for are the victims, and the family and friends of the victims. There were many women raped; there were terrible atrocities.

If the International Criminal Court says that certain zone commanders and Guillaume Soro should be extradited, will you let them go?

They won’t say that he should go on trial, I am sure of this. We did our own investigations. He has nothing to worry about. The facts are there. Now, the Commission Nationale d’Enquête will give us its findings, and whoever the report thinks should be prosecuted will be judged. We sent Laurent Gbagbo because we had neither the statutes nor the judges nor the courts necessary to prosecute him, but this is changing. Our justice system has been rolled out to the whole country, prisons are being rehabilitated and the support staff are taking up their former positions across the country, so we are now in a position to solve these problems ourselves.

So it might be possible to judge Simone Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire?

It’s not excluded. We will look at the question in time.

Speaking to people in Bouaké, you get the impression that they are starting to breathe again and they are starting to feel part of Côte d’Ivoire once more. How can the north be brought in further?

Security is key, but we also need social spending. For years there wasn’t any maintenance of schools, hospitals, clinics, etc. Imagine, in Buna in the north-east, for three to four years, there was no electricity. There was a generator at the hospital, which would fall into disrepair for weeks on end. I promised the population living there during my campaign that there would be electricity. It cost us a million dollars, but now Buna has power 24 hours a day. I cite this example to show what the northern populations are seeing: we are rehabilitating the roads, we are rehabilitating the schools. People in the north were so poor, they had stopped sending their children to school because they could not afford the supplies. We have distributed 2.5m packs of materials to get kids to school for free.

So you need security, then social spending, and alongside this, investment in sectors where the north has a competitive advantage: cotton and sugar. And here we have been pulling in big companies, existing investors and new ones, to help us build up production.

So if people are saying that they are breathing easier, it means that I am succeeding. We need to have concrete progress, and the people have to be the priority. Their living conditions, their health. The possibility to send their children to school. The possibility that those children will have a job. Rather than see those children die in the ocean trying to get to Europe. It breaks my heart to see those images.

I want to get double-digit growth over the next five years. It will allow us to double our GDP, it will bring GDP per capita up by 50-60%, and will reduce poverty by a half. We are at about $1,200 per capita today. If we can get to $2,500 per capita GDP,this will bring us up to a good level in Africa, behind South Africa and Gabon. This is a realisable goal. But we have to bring Ivorians together, that they say to themselves that there is a common future, that this parenthesis has been painful, but we need to forgive. This country can give to each citizen that which he dreams of. I went to the US at 20 years old. What most impressed me was that each American was proud to be an American and that they all had a dream. And that is what I want for Côte d’Ivoire. That each Ivorian is an Ivorian and that each Ivorian has a dream that they want to reach. ●

Also read: Paul Kagame – You can’t overlook ordinary people

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