The Lightning Rod President

Ivory Coast’s new president has made many enemies over the years. Can he bring peace?


"Terrorist." "Foreigner." "Vampire." Alassane Dramane Ouattara has been a magnet for some scathing insults over the past 20 years in Ivory Coast, the West African country of which he has just become president after a four-month conflict with his rival, Laurent Gbagbo. Despite the animosity against him, stoked for years by successive regimes, Ouattara won last November’s presidential election fair and square. But taking power wasn’t so easy. Gbagbo, the incumbent, refused to step down, claiming he had actually been the victor. It took an all-out military assault on the commercial capital Abidjan — aided by French and U.N. troops — to get Gbagbo out. Even then, the outgoing president refused to concede defeat, leaving Ouattara to try to govern and reconcile a country where only just over half the people voted for him.

Ivory Coast is in bad shape. Civil servants are owed weeks of salaries, banks have been ransacked, and migrants, vital to the country’s economy, have fled in droves. With his record as a technocrat and economic reformer, the new president has the skills and background to nurture the country back to health. But whether he has the political chops is another question altogether. Ouattara’s enemies are still seething over the violence committed by his armed supporters and over his backing from France, the much-hated former colonial master. A polarizing figure, Ouattara’s biggest obstacle in the coming months may be himself.

How did Ouattara, a soft-spoken man who was once among the top officials at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), come to be such a divisive figure? The short answer is that rival politicians have long feared Ouattara’s popularity, and for years they have done all in their power to counter it with rumors, accusations, and often outright lies — all part of an effort to ensure he would not assume the presidency. Writing in her memoirs, for example, Gbagbo’s wife Simone said of Ouattara, "I arrived at the conviction that this man was dangerous, without scruples, without faith or law…. Alassane Ouattara turned out to be a real scourge for our country."

Ouattara arrived on the political scene in April 1990, when Ivory Coast’s founding father and president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, appointed him as economic czar. Houphouët had already been in power for three decades, running a dictatorship that was mostly benevolent. But during his rule, Ivory Coast behaved as if it were banking on a never-ending economic boom, borrowing lavishly from France, the IMF, and the World Bank to invest in infrastructure and private enterprises. Thanks to a successful agricultural sector, notably including the world’s largest cocoa harvest, Ivory Coast’s economy grew by 7.5 percent a year on average from 1960 to 1980, putting it among the 15 fastest-growing economies in the world. By the end of this period, however, cocoa prices were falling and the so-called Ivorian miracle began to peter out. In May 1987, the country suspended repayment of its $13.5 billion foreign debt. Houphouët was facing the deepest crisis of his rule.

In dire need of economic help, Houphouët saw Ouattara, then the governor of the Central Bank of West African States, as just the man for the job. Without dropping his post as Central Bank governor, Ouattara, then 48 and a father of two by his American ex-wife, leapt at the chance to enter government.

Installed in his top-floor, air-conditioned office in an ultra-modern skyscraper, Ouattara drew up a set of reforms. The measures, which became known as "the Ouattara plan," were a gentler version of the reforms that had been pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. He ruled out wage cuts after a wave of protests in the preceding months. Instead, Ouattara sought to make savings by making the rich pay their taxes and ending widespread customs fraud. He told civil servants to follow his example by turning up for work at 7:30 a.m. and foregoing the usual three-hour lunch break, taking instead just one hour. He aimed to cut state spending by a quarter, boost tax collection by a third, and erase a $768 million budget deficit. His strategy was successful in macroeconomic terms. But it divided Ivorians, earning him many domestic enemies even as he was being lauded abroad.

Ouattara was dismantling the bloated patronage system that Houphouët had built over the decades, a move that angered many in the elite. The president had used the state bureaucracy like an old-fashioned ward boss, offering jobs to key constituencies and co-opting potential opponents. Ouattara laid off 7,000 public workers not on long-term contracts, auctioned off 4,000 government-owned cars, and began a wave of privatizations, starting with the state electricity company.

The pushback against Ouattara’s policies was organized and passionate. The austerity measures fired up the students’ movement, known as FESCI, and the political opposition, Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI). In June 1991, after a month of renewed protests and violence, Ouattara ordered that FESCI be dissolved, which only further provoked the union. Some 20,000 FPI supporters took to the streets in solidarity with FESCI. In February 1992, a Gbagbo-led demonstration degenerated into riots, and Ouattara ordered the opposition leader’s arrest along with scores of other protestors. Gbagbo was sentenced to two years in prison. His wife, Simone, was beaten, threatened with rape, and arrested as well. "It is time to cleanse the political environment," said Ouattara in an interview at the time with the Financial Times  justifying Gbagbo’s arrest. "They will have to know there are laws and if they break them they must be punished."

The crackdown seemed to work. Just as the situation was calming down, however, Houphouët died after surgery for prostate cancer on Dec. 7, 1993. Before installing Ouattara as prime minister, the former president had rushed through a constitutional amendment to designate his successor: the speaker of parliament, Henri Konan Bédié, who lost no time in claiming the presidency. Ouattara held out for three days, advancing dubious legal arguments for why power should be handed temporarily to the prime minister rather than the speaker. Bédié eventually won out, due not only to having the constitution on his side, but also the French government.

After coming to power, Bédié maneuvered to ban Ouattara from standing in presidential elections by labeling him a foreigner. Bédié nurtured a philosophy called ivoirité, or Ivorianness, that proclaimed certain citizens (those from the south and certain ethnic groups) to be the country’s only true natives. In Ouattara’s case, the ploy worked, because many found it plausible; Ouattara had attended school in Burkina Faso and then lived for years in the United States. He is also a descendent of the Ouattara dynasty that ruled much of Western Africa — and all of Burkina Faso — in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unfortunately, Bédié turned public opinion against far more Ivorians than just Ouattara; he opened a Pandora’s box of ethnic tensions. Not content with mere rhetoric, in November 1994, Bédié put ethnic discrimination into law, changing the constitution such that no one with a parent who was not "of Ivorian origin" could stand for president. It didn’t take long for the discrimination to spread; northerners, who mostly supported Ouattara, found themselves singled out as supposed foreigners.

Amid the growing political tension, Ouattara left the country for Washington, D.C, where he took up a post as one of three deputy managing directors of the IMF. Meanwhile, Ouattara’s supporters teamed up with an unlikely ally: Gbagbo, who shared the common goal of getting Bédié to hold open elections, which both Ouattara and Gbagbo believed they could win. Gbagbo condemned Bédié’s revision of the electoral code, calling it "liberticidal, racist, xenophobic, and dangerous." The two parties demonstrated together and then rioted together. Security forces replied to the rioters’ stone-throwing with tear gas, beatings, and bullets. Nonetheless, the 1995 presidential polls went ahead amid an opposition boycott, and Bédié was re-elected with 96 percent of the vote.

The following months and years would see the wheel of Ivorian politics spinning wildly, with governments falling and revolt succeeding revolt. One thing remained constant, however: the hostility toward northerners, foreigners, and Ouattara, the man who made an easy scapegoat for a country facing ever greater economic woes.

Bédié was eventually toppled in a 1999 Christmas Eve coup d’état by Houphouët’s old army chief, General Robert Guéï. The new leader managed to ban Ouattara from standing in a snap election held in 2000 but, against his expectations, lost to his only competitor, Gbagbo. In a move that was to repeat itself in 2010, Guéï refused to accept defeat and his soldiers mowed down pro-Gbagbo protesters. Ouattara’s supporters, meanwhile, took to the streets, calling for a new election. Bloody crackdowns and ethnic riots followed. On the day Gbagbo was sworn in, a mass grave was discovered containing the bodies of 57 ethnic northerners, many of them stripped naked and with single bullet wounds to the head.

The tension built until full-blown civil war broke out on Sept. 19, 2002, when rebels — most of them ethnic northern soldiers — tried to take Abidjan. Many blamed Ouattara for secretly masterminding the assault, and after an attempt on his life, he was flown into exile to Gabon, and shortly thereafter to four years of exile in Paris. Meanwhile, Ivory Coast endured eight months of civil war that were eventually quelled by French troops and West African peacekeepers who by May had set up a buffer zone between the warring forces intervened. That buffer zone divided the country between rebel-held north and loyalist south — a division that remained in place until the beginning of this year.

Given the turbulent history of the country and the fact that ethnic massacres and assassinations in the latest round of conflict have generated still more rancor, it seems impossible that Ouattara’s victory in April could be the end of it. Gbagbo, by defiantly holding out in his bunker for weeks before he was pulled out by rebels or French forces — as different reports would have it — has only enhanced his heroic reputation among his supporters. Other images from the last four months will also haunt Ouattara’s government, including pro-Ouattara troops parading a forlorn Simone Gbagbo like a trophy — her worst nightmare come true, as she finds herself once again Ouattara’s prisoner.

Ouattara will now have to make the best of a bad situation. He will try to put Gbagbo on trial for abuses by his forces, but could also find himself held responsible for atrocities committed by his own loyalists.

As he steers his way through the minefield of Ivorian politics, he will have to prove his detractors wrong — that he is there to reconcile people, not divide them. His opponents will try to paint him as a foreign stooge, pointing to the support given to him by French and U.N. troops during the post-election conflict. Economically, he will need to resist long-established practices of corruption and clientelism — bringing transparency to the country’s murky cocoa and oil sectors to show donors that neither his government nor its military backers have their fingers in the till. If he does the right things, Ouattara may be able to keep international backers on his side. But given all of the pain and strife Ivory Coast has seen over the last 20 years, his fellow countrymen may be a much tougher sell.

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