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Côte d’Ivoire: Adama Bictogo, at the heart of Ouattara’s RHDP party

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Monday, 31 May 2021 11:17

dama Bictogo, businessman and politician. He manages the Snedai Group and is also executive secretary of the "Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix". Photo taken in Abidjan on 5 May 2021. OMAR FOR JA

Côte d’Ivoire's Adama Bictogo, the RHDP party’s number two, is a patient man. He has known President Alassane Ouattara for more than a quarter of a century, but acknowledges that he has nothing to gain by leaving the pack too soon. Will he ever be able to aim higher than simply being a shrewd politician and businessman?

The hotel in Côte d’Ivoire where Adama Bictogo always stays feels a bit like home to him. In fact, he often spends one or more nights a week there, either for political, official or business meetings. But his favourite thing to do there is play tennis, often times with people such as Fidèle Sarassoro – President Alassane Ouattara’s chief of staff – as well as political leaders such as former minister Thierry Tanoh and diplomats posted in Abidjan. It’s how he manages to combine business with pleasure while on the job.

On the very warm morning of our interview, Bictogo was not wearing shorts and trainers but rather a double-breasted suit. He was well dressed, as usual. Since it was still Ramadan at the time, he decided to skip his morning coffee. This was no trouble at all for the second in command of the ruling Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP). “I am 58 years old, I am quite fit for my age. I get up at 5am every morning and jog 10km around my home,” he says.

Disciplined

A few weeks earlier, this successful businessman was walking the streets of Agboville, a town in the southern part of the country where he was born. “Adams”, as his old friends call him, had just been re-elected as a member of parliament during the 6 March legislative election.

Fleur Aké M’Bo, one of his opponents from the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), had challenged his win for a while. However, it was eventually confirmed by the electoral commission. “He mobilised a lot of money and means to win, but it is important to acknowledge that he was elected,” says a member of former president Laurent Gbagbo’s party.

But for Bictogo, he prefers to talk about his attachment “to the land” and “a beautiful campaign that was well managed”, during which he wanted “to please the population by making donations, as [he does] throughout the year.”

He was supposed to succeed Amadou Soumahoro as president of the National Assembly, as Ouattara had suggested. However, in early March, the death of prime minister Hamed Bakayoko changed everything.

If Soumahoro had been sidelined, the Worodougou region would no longer have had any of its prominent figures in positions of power. Therefore, the head of state decided to keep him in office, despite his poor health. “When the President announced his choice, I felt neither disappointment nor frustration,” says Bictogo. “I just want to be useful to his party. I have to be disciplined and set an example.”

He is therefore content with the position of first vice-president with extended powers. But the position is so much more than that. In fact, he has been considered the real head of the National Assembly ever since the new government was formed, due to Soumahoro’s frequent absences. “There is already perceptible tension between them,” says an opposition MP. “When Soumahoro is not there, Bictogo tries to make decisions and move the Assembly’s work forward, but Soumahoro blocks everything when he returns.” Bictogo says that “when I have to take over from him, I fully take over.”

A “bon vivant”

Many members of the majority still feel that this prestigious position, that of president of the National Assembly, should have been given to Bictogo. Ever since Ouattara appointed him as executive director of the RHDP in 2019, this “bon vivant” has established links with most of the elected party members. “He knows all the MPs,” says a minister. “He receives many of them at home and has been able to forge close relationships with them. This helps him keep an eye on their work in the assembly.”

An aide close to Ouattara adds: “He is a great unifier. He has even managed to merge former members of the RDR [Rassemblement des Républicains, Ouattara’s former party] with people from the PDCI [Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire, Henri Konan Bédié’s party]. Today, our party is well established throughout the country. We must recognise that he has done a good job!”

Bictogo managed to acquire this position within the RHDP due to the good working relationship that he cultivated with the head of state. “They speak almost every day,” says a person close to Ouattara. “The president now trusts him completely.”

The boss of Snedai Group, who has known Ouattara for nearly a quarter of a century, has always been unfailingly loyal to him. They first met back in the early 1990s. After studying business in Paris, the young Bictogo returned to Abidjan and joined SCOA, a large-scale distribution chain. One day, he caught a glimpse of Ouattara – Côte d’Ivoire’s new prime minister – on television and was immediately attracted to the man’s “innovative” approach. An enthusiastic Bictogo then launched the association Génération Alassane Ouattara.

Amadou’s “good kid”

On 14 February 1994, a few weeks after former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s resignation and death, Ouattara received Bictogo in Abidjan and introduced him to the members of his inner circle.

These included Téné Birahima Ouattara, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, Bakayoko, etc. “I very quickly felt a kinship with Birahima, who immediately treated me like a little brother,” he says. “We often drove to their house in the north. And every Sunday evening, I would go see their mother, Adja Nabintou Cissé, and have my kabato dish with light sauce.” The member of parliament adds that he named one of his daughters Nabintou “in recognition of the affection that she had shown him.”

Is it, as some claim, because of his proximity to the government that he gets so many big contracts?

In 1994, Bictogo participated in the launch of the RDR and became close to Coulibaly. In the following ‘Lion of Korhogo’, he ‘wove his web’ within the RDR. The bond between the two men became even stronger. “Bictogo was Amadou’s ‘good kid’,” says one of the president’s aides. And when Ouattara chose Coulibaly as his successor for the 2020 presidential election, Bictogo gave him his full support.

Then came 8 July 2020. A week after his return from Paris, where he had stayed for two months due to heart problems, Coulibaly collapsed at the end of a cabinet meeting. He would never get up again. “I was extremely shocked,” says Bictogo. “I immediately went to the clinic. Amadou was my big brother, my friend. We had no topics that were off-limits.”

The question of who would replace the deceased in the presidential election was quickly raised. For his part, the RHDP’s number two felt that Ouattara was the only possible choice. It didn’t matter to him that the president had promised to step down from power. “The overwhelming majority of activists and party officials wanted the head of state to run. In Amadou’s absence, he was the only logical choice,” he says.

Bictogo, who never shied away from speaking to the press, repeated to both journalists and party officials that the only option was for Ouattara to run again, no matter what his opponents and foreign observers said about the legality of his running for a third term. “During this period of uncertainty, there were not many who laid it all on the line for the president like he did,” says a minister.

Misunderstandings with Bakayoko

Internally, his activism and refusal to consider any other solution frustrated many. When Bictogo learned, at the end of July, that some 20 members of RHDP were preparing to publicly back Bakayoko’s candidacy, he worked behind the scenes to nip the initiative in the bud. “He acted to bring order to the ranks,” said a party leader.

“Hamed obviously did not take it well. He was angry and did not understand that Bictogo was struggling, saying everywhere that there was no one behind the president,” said a government source. Although he acknowledges that he “may have offended some”, Bictogo says “there were political misunderstandings between us, but never tension. It was nothing personal, we had a strong fraternal relationship.”

Once Ouattara was officially nominated for a third term, Bictogo threw all his energy into the campaign, despite the volatile situation. He prepared the RHDP for battle by organising meetings and defended the president tooth and nail in the face of criticism.

Bictogo is an extremely passionate man and sometimes went off the rails, like during a meeting in Treichville, during which he shouted “You have to shut up!” to the dissident Marcel-Amon Tanoh. “The threats of some opposition leaders had created a form of psychosis that had to be fought,” he said. “We had to reassure Ivorians and our foreign partners. We had no doubt that Alassane Ouattara would be re-elected triumphantly.”

Bictogo is not always so sharp. He is a seducer, but he also knows how to be pleasant and a good communicator. Even his rivals sense his openness and desire to engage in real dialogue. These qualities have enabled him to navigate through the various regimes while remaining loyal to Ouattara.

He was as close to General Robert Gueï as he was to Désiré Tagro, Gbagbo’s former interior minister. “He is a bit like Hamed Bakayoko,” says a leading opposition figure. “He is not a narrow technocrat, but a pure politician, pragmatic, with whom we can always discuss issues. He understands that if the wind changes, it is wise to have friends in the other camp.”

He has lunch or coffee regularly with PDCI and FPI leaders. He is also quite close with Gbagbo’s entourage as well as with the latter’s wife, Nady Bamba. He was immediately put into contact with the former president when the latter recovered his passports. “Our country needs serenity. We need to calm down the political debate,” he says. “Everyone must accept responsibility. The future of Côte d’Ivoire, which is at an important turning point in its history, depends on it.”

A businessman

However, his detractors are numerous, and some are extremely vindictive. “His name is often mentioned when something suspicious takes place in Abidjan,” says one of them. “He is a man who does not give the impression of being in politics out of conviction but rather to serve his own interests.” A former minister adds that “he is often involved in dirty tricks. The president knows it but Bictogo is one of the RHDP’s main financiers.”

Although it is difficult to estimate his personal worth, Bictogo is undoubtedly one of Côte d’Ivoire’s more prosperous citizens. In recent years, he has established himself as one of the country’s leading businessmen, with well-tailored suits, large motorbikes, a sumptuous residence in Cocody and a villa in Assinie, where he likes to relax on the weekends. Snedai Group, which is present in Côte d’Ivoire and the sub-region, specialises in technology, public works, transport and energy.

Is it, as some claim, because of his proximity to the government that he gets so many big contracts? “There are a lot of rumours about his business,” says a minister. “People say that he wins all the public contracts, but that’s not true. There are others who are also in important niches, such as Pierre Fakhoury and Sidi Mohamed Kagnassi, not to mention Martin Bouygues, Vincent Bolloré and even other foreigners!”

In any case, Bictogo sweeps aside this criticism. “I act like all bosses: I put my address book at the service of my group. Everything is done according to the rules of the trade and I have always remained true to myself. I get financing from banks by showing off the qualities and know-how of our companies. I should be congratulated for having set up a group consisting of more than 1,000 employees with multiple and recognised skills!”

However, he hasn’t remained totally unscathed as he was implicated in the so-called Probo Koala case, named after the ship that dumped toxic waste in Abidjan back in 2006.

After successfully mediating between the various parties, Bictogo was accused in 2012 of having embezzled part of the €7m in compensation that was intended for the victims. As a result, he was forced to resign as minister of African Integration in order to defend himself. Although he was eventually cleared by the courts, the episode left a bitter taste in his mouth. “This whole attack was planned because I was in the midst of a political ascension,” he says.

He did stumble, but has since resumed his march forward, rising to the RHDP’s number two position. But where will he stop? Many believe that he has presidential ambitions. Officially, within the ranks of the majority, they refuse to talk about Ouattara’s succession, however, the question is on everyone’s mind. Bictogo certainly seems like a strong candidate as he has established personal relations with most of the sub-region’s presidents, but he says he does not want to think about it. “My open and honest political commitment may make some people think that I am ambitious,” he replies when asked. “But my only ambition is to accompany President Ouattara in the pursuit of his objectives. A mission has been entrusted to me and I am fulfilling it.”

Remain loyal and know how to wait

“He is the interim president of the National Assembly, he leads the ruling party, he has a lot of money… If he doesn’t think about it, he’s an idiot,” says one of his opponents. Perhaps he has learned, during his quarter of a century at the side of the head of state, that it is better to remain loyal rather than leave the pack too soon.

“The RHDP’s leaders only exist politically because they are with the president. All those who have tried to exist independently of him or go against his will have paid dearly,” says a minister. As a wise businessman, Bictogo knows that it is sometimes better to be patient and know how to wait for a return on investment.

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