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.
It was a Friday afternoon, on the eve of the 31 October 2020 presidential election. Côte d’Ivoire’s presidency had invited foreign and Ivorian journalists to an informal discussion held in the lush garden of President Alassane Ouattara’s residence in Abidjan.
Among those present was Hamed Bakayoko who was being his typical self. With one hand, Côte d’Ivoire’s prime minister and minister of defence was compulsively checking his mobile phone, simultaneously dealing with private and professional matters. With the other, he was wolfing down a hearty meal. Bakayoko was a “bon vivant”, instinctive, alert and curious. Whenever he asked someone a question, he would look the person directly in the eyes. It was as if he was trying to penetrate the very depths of their soul.
A man of power
It was my turn to ask him a question: Amadou Gon Coulibaly had been dead since 8 July, so did Bakayoko he have any plans to run for president? “Since his death, I have realised what the task of governing represents, and I am not sure that I want it at all costs,” he replied. “I like my friends and my lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
A slight smile appeared on many faces. As well as on his. How could we believe him? Bakayoko was a man of power. He was a political animal whose ambition overflowed, ready to fight to satisfy it. Over the years, by the sheer audacity, nerve and intelligence that characterises self-taught people, this imposing man with a broad, wrinkled neck had become indispensable to Ouattara and one of the most powerful men in Côte d’Ivoire.
Bakayoko met Ouattara almost 30 years ago, in the early 1990s. Bakayoko had just founded Mayama Éditions, the publishing company of the newspaper Le Patriote, when he turned up uninvited to Ouattara and Dominique Nouvian’s wedding.
Very quickly, Nouvian became, for the man who had lost his mother when he was a child, a “second mother”. From 1993 to 2003, Bakayoko led the Radio Nostalgie Afrique group, then joined Guillaume Soro’s government – which was formed after the Linas-Marcoussis agreements in 2003 – as minister of new information and communication technologies.
The years went by and Côte d’Ivoire sank into crisis. On 11 April 2011, amidst the hubbub of room 468 at the Golf Hotel, Laurent Gbagbo appeared in a white tank top. Issiaka Ouattara (aka Wattao) helped him put on a shirt. Bakayoko never left the newly arrested former president’s side, as he had been tasked with ensuring his safety. A few days later, he was appointed interior minister. He would bring his own touch to this position before being appointed minister of defence in 2017, amidst a series of mutinies that were disrupting the regime.
Bakayoko, who was often in charge of secret missions, did not hesitate when the moment arrived to reduce Soro’s influence. The former rebel leader had become president of the national assembly. Their rivalry increased further during Ouattara’s first term. “Hamed has managed to penetrate Soro’s system and weaken it considerably,” said a securocrat in 2020.
Abobo’s “Golden Boy”
In 2018, the head of state was looking for a candidate to run for mayor in Abobo’s October municipal elections. The “Golden Boy” hesitated for a while then agreed to run. In this northern suburb of Abidjan, he led a remarkable presidential-like campaign. He devoted human and financial resources, and campaign posters depicted the defence chief standing at attention. He was elected with 58.99% of the vote.
At the time, Bakayoko’s entourage began to hope. What if he was Ouattara’s successor? A few weeks after his victory in Abobo, Bakayoko lost his father, El Hadj Anliou Bakayoko. Many paid tribute to him at a funeral worthy of a statesman. Those close to the minister saw this as a sign.
However, not everyone was happy about Bakayoko’s rise. As he moved up the order of protocol, some of his security responsibilities were taken away from him and given to Téné Birahima Ouattara, the brother of the head of state and minister of presidential affairs.
President Ouattara himself had a complex relationship with the man he described as his “son and close collaborator.” Bakayoko was a key figure of his government. But did Ouattara see Bakayoko as his successor? In recent years, Ouattara had often said in private that he didn’t feel Bakayoko was “ready yet” to take over. The head of state favoured Gon Coulibaly, who was a technocrat and a friend of 30 years.
Even though his relations with the latter were not always easy, Bakayoko respected the head of state’s choice. He did not want to make the same mistake as Soro, who paid dearly when he resigned from the presidency of the national assembly. Bakayoko decided to set his sights on the 2025 presidential election.
The position of prime minister begrudgingly handed over
Gon Coulibaly’s death changed everything. Ouattara decided very quickly to run again for president and Bakayoko emerged as the number one choice for prime minister. The president informed him of this, but some of Gon Coulibaly’s colleagues opposed it.
The official announcement was delayed, and “Hamed” became impatient. “I need to be told things frankly,” he said to one of his friends. He was finally appointed on 30 July 2020. This position was begrudgingly given to Bakayoko and trimmed of certain economic prerogatives that were given to Patrick Achi, secretary general of the presidency.
Was the glass half empty or half full? Upon Gon Coulibaly’s death, something changed within the presidential camp. During the campaign, Bakayoko often seemed to be in the background. The opposition flexed its muscles, called for demonstrations against Ouattara’s third term and then for civil disobedience. Bakayoko was asked to lead the offensive, which he seemed reluctant to do at first, before agreeing to join the battle.
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“Mr. President, we will be forced to disobey you a little if the opposition continues to give orders to destroy state buildings. We will go to their houses to demand that they pay for what they have destroyed, even though some of them live in state housing,” he said on 30 September during a major meeting in Bouaflé.
“We cannot accept that these people come and destroy the achievements that you have made in this country, some of whom have even benefited from them in their villages while they themselves have done nothing.”
After the presidential election, the hardest part was yet to come for Bakayoko. After the legislative elections of 6 March, it seemed likely that he would keep his position as prime minister for a few more months, even a year. “Since his appointment, his mission has been mainly political,” said someone close to Ouattara at the end of November. “From now on, he must prove himself, show that he is able to take charge of major economic issues.”
Indispensable, Bakayoko knew that he was undoubtedly being closely watched. Among all the contenders planning on running for president, he had a head start, but there was a still a long way to go.
Independent and feared
Was he ready? He had been preparing for this eventuality for years. To compensate for his lack of a degree, he had surrounded himself with brilliant professionals from very diverse backgrounds. He had hired several coaches to perfect his strategy, diction and physical fitness.
Although he had built himself in Ouattara’s image, he was not dependent on him. As a Freemason, he had contacts among the continent’s political and economic elite. Within the corridors of power, this made him an exception and all the more feared.
Reading the wave of tributes that have been pouring in since his death, you can see that Bakayoko was the image of a certain Côte d’Ivoire. He was a great dancer and lover of music who had the reputation of being a party animal. And like many of his colleagues in government, his wealth and business connections were the talk of the town. He also liked to maintain his reputation as a simple man close to the people. Just like Burkina Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré, he made a habit of sitting in the front seat of his official car.
A man from the north born in Adjamé and married to a woman from the south-east, Bakayoko appeared to be one of the few politicians who could break the political divide. He was one of the only ones to be accepted within the ranks of the Front Populaire Ivoirien as well as those of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire. After the presidential election, when tensions were at their highest, he was chosen by Gbagbo to plead with the authorities to lift the blockade imposed on Henri Konan Bédié’s residence.
Since his departure to Paris on 18 February, men and women from all walks of life had been inquiring about his health. When told that Bakayoko was suffering from cancer and that his chances of recovery were slim, one of Gbagbo’s relatives was silent for a moment and then said: “Hamed was born in Adjamé, but he is also a child of Cocody. We all have a history with him. He had done favours for all of us.” On 11 March, Bakayoko also appeared in the WhatsApp profile picture of someone close to Soro. For him, Bakayoko’s death is “a huge loss”.
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