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Côte d’Ivoire: Ouattara and the ‘Golf Republic’

By Pascal Airault in Abidjan
Posted on Thursday, 23 December 2010 15:36

Côte d’Ivoire remains a country with two presidents after Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo claimed victory in the second round of voting on 28 November.

Protected by UN peackeepers, Ouattara’s government is making its first decisions. Pascal Airault reports on life and the government inside Abidjan’s Golf Hôtel.

Read more on why the stakes are high for supporters of Laurent Gbagbo.

The grand Golf Hôtel in Abidjan hosts a presidential palace, a prime minister and thirteen ministries. Cloistered in the five-star establishment with its 306 beautifully decorated and air-conditioned rooms overlooking the Ébrié Lagoon, Cocody Bay, a garden, golf course and large swimming pool are President Alassane Ouattara, his ally Henri Konan Bédié and prime minister Guillaume Soro. They are trying with great difficulty to establish their legitimacy and presence after an election win that has been recognised by the international community and African leaders but is disputed by incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who remains in charge of the army.

Ouattara, the former opposition leader, is living cooped up and guarded by peacekeepers from the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire, French soldiers from the Licorne mission and ex-rebel Forces Nouvelles (FN). For the Gbagbo camp, a ‘naked emperor’ comedy bearing the stamp of illegality is being played out here. “If they continue, we will cut off their water and electricity. They occupy a public hotel all expenses paid,” warned a baron of the Gbagbo regime, which has condemned the unlikely crew protecting Ouattara. In a televised address on 22 December, Gbagbo said Ouattara’s supporters were free to leave the hotel. However, they are staying put and the road to the Golf remains blocked by soldiers.

You need to think at least three steps in advance

Meanwhile, the elected president and head of government is going about its business in this chess game of legitimacy.

Soro holds cabinet meetings in a large air-conditioned UN tent. In the entrance hall, soldiers and suited bodyguards stop journalists and other undesirables from entering. Inside, the prime minister attends to urgent issues of defence, diplomacy, economics and communications. He is preparing for the dismissal of ambassadors who are too loyal to Gbagbo. Also on the agenda is the control of public finances and the appointment of officials to the main government institutions. On a small table nearby, Marcel Amon Tanoh, chief of staff of the presidency, and Largaton G. Ouattara, his counterpart for the head of government, take notes like attentive students.

At the end of the first cabinet meeting on 6 December, the press was allowed into this “sacred place”. Hamed Bakayoko, the new interior minister, takes over the podium from Charles Koffi Diby, who now mans the Finance Ministry. Appointed by Gbagbo and said to be close to Gbagbo, Diby is prized by the Ouattara camp as a major symbol of a turning tide. Diby’s support should make it easier to exert control over the public purse. He has been in Paris for two weeks now, meeting with French treasury officials to find a way to block Gbagbo’s accounts.

Consultations day and night

Ouattara has given his prime minister considerable latitude to lead government action while he consults day and night in his suite on the fifth floor. The elected president has two suites in which to hold meetings and maintain a semblance of privacy. Mornings bring cabinet meetings to take stock of the situation. He is kept informed of everyone’s activities, sets broad guidelines and delegates duties, reserving the diplomatic task for himself. Ouattara is often on the phone to heads of state of the subregion. He remains in constant contact with supporters abroad, mainly in Paris and Washington. He also meets with ambassadors in Abidjan. He eats a rushed lunch and reserves time for a relaxed dinner on the terrace with his family and closest allies.

Other diplomatic meetings take place in five dedicated rooms in the hotel. The Houphouétist coalition of parties is preparing the groundwork for new joint operations. The thirteen ministers gather their cabinets in their suites, which are scattered throughout the various wings of the hotel. In the conference room, the communication teams of the presidency, the prime minister and the coalition parties hold briefings on the government’s activities, the FN’s position and the impact of post-election violence.

Former president Henri Konan Bédié, whose votes in the first round largely carried over to Ouattara, is on hand throughout the day. “What he is doing is criminal, thuggery,” the ‘Sphinx of Daoukro’ regularly says about Gbagbo. He also has to deal with the complaints of his supporters who have had to concede several portfolios – including the premiership to Soro – despite their allegiance in the second round. Bédié and Ouattara consult on all important strategic decisions. Their wives, Dominique and Harriet, do not go a day without seeing each other.

For Pascal Brou Aka, host of the historic televised debate between Ouattara and Gbagbo on 25 November, the situation is worrying. “How could we go so low,” he laments. “We gave a lesson in democracy to the entire world with this debate.” Named chief executive of Radio Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) by Ouattara, he chose to “stand on the side of truth” and has received many expressions of support.

Siege mentalities

Morale is very erratic in the corridors of the Golf Hôtel. Working conditions are far from ideal: Ministers, activists, observers, journalists, gunmen and supporters armed with CVs line the hallways. From the entrance hall comes a deafening uproar. The to-ing and fro-ing is relentless. The self-service canteen gives off a continuous and somewhat stale smell of crêpes, ham sandwiches, fruit juice and stale beer. The Ébrié restaurant and Le Flamboyant bar are packed. “It’s difficult,” admits Patrick Achy, government spokesman and minister of infrastructure. “We have to get out of this situation fast to work on rebuilding the country.”

To relax, some residents go for a morning jog. Bictogo Adama, who led the campaign for Ouattara’s Rassemblement de Républicains in Abidjan, lets off steam on the tennis courts. Others, like lawyer Affoussy Bamba, a spokesman for the FN, and Sidiki Konate, Soro’s right-hand man, enjoy the fresh air along the Ébrié Lagoon. But here, too, their peace is disturbed. Bulldozers reinforce the UN barrier, erecting barbed wire fences and mounds on which to set up observation posts. At the hotel entrance, cars are searched. Within the enclosure, there are more and more patrols. Peacekeepers, Licorne soldiers and FN are all on alert. Northern military commanders, known as Comzones (Commandants de Zone), Wattao and Morou Ouattara are regularly seen with their mobile phones in hand. At night the meetings continue. “We rest in instalments”, says one of Soro’s people. “The PM could call us at any time.”

Night moves

Night is also when discreet emissaries travel from one camp to another. Many come to check the pulse of the ‘Golf Republic’. In the evening, hotel residents watch the news on RTI and France 24. The Golf receives the French news channel, but it has been suspended throughout the rest of the country. News is also spread by newspapers and word of mouth. Many rumours were circulated by SMS before the government suspended text messaging.

This has not stopped the relentless speculation. Everyone has their own scenario: a people’s liberation movement, armed attack, outside intervention, the relocation of the Golf Republic. A republic surrounded, besieged, which will fall apart by itself, according to the Gbagbo camp. “We won’t lose hope,” replies Patrick Achy. “We will overthrow this regime without shedding a drop of blood. Because Ivorians support the legitimate authority, the government administration will switch to our camp, and every day we win new victories on the diplomatic front.”

This article was first published in our sister magazine Jeune Afrique.

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