9 May 2003

Cote d'Ivoire: Ouattara Tells of Escape from Death Squads, Says Gbagbo Not Committed to Peace

interview

Washington, DC — Alassane Dramane Ouattara, known to his supporters by his initials, ADO, is a former prime minister of Cote d’Ivoire and head of the main opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party. Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, is considered the main rival of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian westerner. He is also a controversial and ambitious politician who has tried and failed to become president of Cote d’Ivoire.

Ouattara was barred by the courts from standing in the 2000 presidential elections, because of questions raised about his Ivorian nationality by the then military ruler, General Robert Guei. The vote went ahead and Guei tried and failed to claim victory before fleeing, leaving Laurent Gbagbo declared winner of the election. But Ouattara’s exclusion from the poll led to violent clashes between his and Gbagbo's supporters in the southern coastal metropolis, Abidjan, and laid the foundation for bitter and protracted political and ethnic divisions in Cote d’Ivoire.

These came to a head in September last year when an army mutiny rapidly ballooned into a major political rebellion by a group of soldiers and others from the north, which then spread to the west. Ouattara’s detractors have accused him alternately of being the driving force behind the rebellion or at least an accomplice to the insurgents and he was forced to leave the country in fear for his life. Rebel factions now control most of the north and parts of western Cote d’Ivoire.

The relationship between Gbagbo and Ouattara remains hostile and they have traded accusations in press interviews. But with a ceasefire accord, Ouattara’s RDR party pledged to take part in Cote d’Ivoire's national unity government agreed at French-brokered all-party negotiations in Linas-Marcoussis outside Paris in January, four months after the start of the civil war.

After weeks of dithering, the coalition government - including rebel representatives - finally met in Abidjan in late April. But the stop-start implementation of the accord has been echoed by repeated breaches of the ceasefire. A fragile truce came into force last weekend to try to end the fighting in the anarchic "wild west," close to Cote d’Ivoire’s border with Liberia - itself wracked by civil war. A total cessation of hostilities was reportedly agreed by all sides, in a bid to end an escalating civil war that is threatening to spread to other countries in West Africa.

The United Nations’ secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has appealed to the Security Council for urgent funds to help restore peace to Cote d’Ivoire. More troops from the former colonial power France - which already has a 4,000-strong force in the country - and the West African region are to be dispatched to the troublesome Liberian border area to try maintain the ceasefire.

Watching all this has been Alassane Ouattara from his temporary base in Paris with his close political colleagues, Aly Coulibaly, spokesman of the RDR, and Adama Toungara, the RDR mayor of Abobo, the largest district of Abidjan. All three men were forced by the violent events in the city last September to quit the city. In a comprehensive interview with allAfrica.com’s Akwe Amosu in April, Ouattara reflected on recent developments in Cote d’Ivoire and reviewed the past nine months, starting with his personal experience of the attempted military takeover on 19 September 2002. Excerpts:

Were you taken completely by surprise by what happened on September 19?

Oh yes totally, because we had only arrived back about a week or ten days before Sept 19th. In fact we were in France for the month of August which is a traditional period of vacation in France and since a lot of our children are there and our grandchildren also, we were together until the end of the month. At some point I had even thought of staying in France until Sept 20th to come here [to Washington, DC] for the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF. In mid-September, I was to make a trip to Congo in the framework of my advisory group, the International Institute for Africa which gives high-level advice to presidents and governments on macro policy - debt, infrastructure and the like. But I couldn't arrange the meeting with President Sassou N'guessou, so I decided to go to Abidjan for a week to ten days before coming to Washington. So we were taken completely by surprise when at 5am we were woken up by our security telling us that there were gunshots and that something strange was happening.

Was there any indication that you were in danger?

When we heard about the gunshots, all of us started listening to radio and calling each other to see what was happening and at about 12:30, Adama Toungara, the mayor of Abobo came running into our house with his wife and three children - we live only four blocks from each other. He arrived telling us that tanks, military officers, had erupted into his house and they had been threatened, so they came to our house for protection.

We calmed down the children and said we could all eat together at 1.30pm. When we started eating and we got calls saying General Guei had just been assassinated with his wife and 17 other people and that it was a death squad that had killed them and they were coming to my house and that we should leave. So this was around 2pm.

Did you know who they were, who was in the death squad?

No, no, of course, we did not know at that point. I thought it was actually intimidation, and I said I will not leave my house. As one of the four political leaders - Bedie, myself, Gbagbo and Guei - each of us have 20 military and police officers for our security. But since we had come for only a few days and the situation was normal, we had a rotation of ten people at a time for 24 hours so we only had ten people in arms at our house that night and morning.

But at 2.30pm the head of security came and said the tanks were just 100 metres from the house and we had to leave. The German ambassador's house is just the other side of the wall so we took ladders and moved into the ambassador’s. They were already breaking through the iron gate of my residence.

That was around 3 o'clock and from there we stayed until midnight until we were moved from the German ambassador's house to the French embassy, because you know the German ambassador's house is like many ambassador's houses in Africa, you only have one gardien [watchman] - one or two people - because state security is supposed to protect the residences. But the French embassy, because you have French military bases in Abidjan, had very, very large security arrangements. So that's why we asked to be moved there.

I must say that during that time, from when we left my house at around 2.30pm until we moved, I talked to the minister of defence Mr Lida Kouassi about eight or ten times, I talked to the chief of staff, General [Mathias] Doue two or three times, I talked to the head of the gendarmerie, General Touvoli, and all of them were saying , "No, Mr president, that's OK, we're sending security, we're sending more people to protect you and your house." But people were coming and saying "Where is he? We want to kill him!" and shouting.

And was it your instinct that these were the same people who were sent to protect you? Were they acting with government approval?

Oh yes, they were in gendarmes’ clothes, they had gendarmerie cars. They had cars with presidential tags, it was clearly the gendarmerie and the police which had organized this; we could see them in my house from the window of a bathroom in the German ambassador's residence; after about one hour they brought trucks to start moving things out of the house, our chairs, lamps, dishes, our linen and clothes and so forth, and after a while they came to the German ambassador’s house and banged on the fence saying they wanted to come in.

The German ambassador had just arrived 15 days before; the former ambassador, a lady who was a friend of ours, had returned after three years in Abidjan, so the German ambassador was new. I had met him just by chance three days before, at a reception at one of the ambassadors’ houses, so he and his wife were quite surprised to see us!

But they were very courageous because he told them, you have no right to come in here, this is German territory and my government will not accept this, so they started saying "s’en fout, on le veut, on va le prendre, on va le tuer," ["We don’t care, we want him, we’re going to get him, we’re going to kill him"], really completely crazy. It lasted nine hours and I would call the minister of defence he would say, "No we're sending people, they're not far away," but the more people he would send, the more people were saying they wanted to kill us.

How did you come to move to the French embassy?

When around 10pm we had details of what had happened to General Guei, I informed Mayor Adama Toungara and my wife that there had been 19 people there and they killed all of them. We were 14, and with the ambassador and his wife, 16, so I had to make a difficult decision. I thought that if I were to stay with them they would have killed me but they would kill the others too.

Around 10.30am, I had made the decision to get out of the German embassy so that they would have the opportunity to kill me and save the others. But Adama and his wife and my wife were telling me that they would not accept that, that we all have to do it but I thought it was stupid for 16 people to die if one person could do it, you know.

So it was during that time, when my wife was in tears, completely traumatized, that I got a call from the French ambassador saying, "Well, Mr President, stay where you are, because I just got a call from President Chirac and he has asked me to come and get you myself from the German ambassador's house to put you under the protection of the French embassy."

During all this time we did not know what was happening, it was only thereafter when we were in the French embassy. In the German embassy we had been worried about ourselves, but when we got there the following day we started hearing that there were problems in Bouake with new recruits who were to be fired, the rebellion and so forth.

So having seen that there was an attempt to get rid of you, what was your attitude to the emerging MPCI rebel movement that established itself in the north?

Well I had no - we did not think that Cote d'Ivoire would avoid military disturbances or a coup. Because when the Forum of Reconciliation took place from October to December [2001]everyone had been very hopeful about the future; but of course at the end, Gbagbo said, "well, the Forum is neither a parliament nor a government" clearly an indication that he had no intention of implementing the recommendations of the Forum.

So in my statement to the Forum, I proposed that we have a meeting of the four political leaders in Yamoussoukro and this took place in January for two days and both Adama and Aly were with me there. We approved the recommendations of the Forum and we then added 11 other points. So, it was a 24-point document that we thought could be a timetable for peace in Cote d'Ivoire.

After 2, 3, 4 months, nothing happened. President Gbagbo did not implement any of the recommendations or, if he did, he would implement only part of a recommendation, not the whole of it and then he came back on it, so clearly there was no will.

And more importantly we started hearing that in the army, from May-June, they starting taking decisions to remove most of the people at the top of the army, gendarmerie and the police on arbitrary reasons and started putting people of their tribes and party in charge, while they are really a minority; anyone who knows Cote d'Ivoire will tell you that Gbagbo's constituency politically, ethnically does not exceed 15-20 per cent. While Bedie and myself each would account for one third, probably 40%. So doing this to the army was creating rumours of coup already in the army.

The second element was that during that period also, there were I think 500 soldiers who had been recruited at the time of General Guei, during the transition. That was fairly balanced in terms of regional and ethnic representation. And there were rumours that the minister of defence wanted to fire those 500 people and hire 500 new people composed essentially of people from the tribe of Gbagbo, the minister of defence and the minister of interior.

And the rebellion actually started with those 500 who were to be thrown out of the army after a year of transition. And politically also, the local election did not go well because all the major parties, the PDCI and the RDR ourselves, we were very unhappy because a week before the election the minister of interior decided that you could only vote with certain identity cards and not with all identity cards. As a result, the turnout was very low, I would estimate it at 40% of voters entitled to vote were not able to vote.

So putting all those factors together, were you reaching the conclusion that constitutional means of pursuing politics were at an end and a military option was necessary?

No, actually, we were not of that view. We thought that if there could be enough pressure on President Gbagbo to implement the recommendations from the Forum and our meeting, that we could get into a real political process and we met, on several occasions, the French ambassador and the US ambassador.

Although they (Gbagbo and government) changed the rules of the game just before the election and a good part of the leadership in my party did not want to participate, we participated in the local elections. And at the same time when, after the election, Gbagbo proposed that we form a broad national unity government, our party accepted to participate in August in the national unity government.

So really we wanted to participate in the implementation of the recommendations of the Forum. But of course it is clear that those in the military were not of the same view and thought that only a military solution could work.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that Gbagbo and his supporters believe that you were in league with the MPCI rebels and indeed, that you planned and organized this uprising; he said so in some detail in a recent interview.

Yes. Well maybe if I did, the rebellion would not have gone so... things would have taken a... (laughs). I think the solution would have been found already because I can tell you we knew, having been in the French embassy, that for a month, the rebellion did not go far because the major powers did not know who was in charge of the rebellion; maybe I should have said, "hey, I'm in charge!" and people would have backed me and we would have thrown Gbagbo out and it would have been over!

I came to this country [the United States] when I was 20 years old, I believe in elections. It’s only ballots which should put people in power, everyone who has been through coups and violence knows it has not worked. I've learned that in school, I've learned that here [in the US] and this is the dream I have for my country. I don't believe in military coups and military regimes. They don't work and even if you get into power by force, you cannot impose force on the international community, even if you can do it at home through repression.

Why do you go into politics? To help your people. If you get into a situation where the international community will prevent your country from having any support, because you have had a coup or you have organised a coup, I think it's a waste of time.

And without false modesty, I think that I don't need to be president of Cote d'Ivoire to have the life and the reputation I have. The job I had here [in the US], many people thought I was crazy to leave it to run for president of Cote d'Ivoire. I had much more influence being deputy managing director of the IMF than as president of Cote d'Ivoire.

The other allegation that is made is that you are very close to the Burkinabe president and that you and President Blaise Compaore have coordinated and planned to further the objective of the rebellion.

Well, I'm very close to the Burkinabe president, that is true, I'm very close to the Malian president, this is true, and several other presidents because I’ve had jobs in which I was dealing essentially with heads of state as director of the Africa Department of the IMF from ‘84 to ‘88 and then as deputy managing director of the IMF from '94 to '99 and these countries I've helped. I've seen the heads of state in difficult situations and I've advised them and we have kept very, very good relations. They are my friends and they will remain my friends.

Now, I think you have to go for a basic principle of what you want for your country. I don't want a coup for my country. I don't want a military regime for my country. What I want for my country is elections and democracy. Even if some people were to make a coup and ask me to be president, I would refuse.

The rebels have in fact spoken up in favour of you as a leader.

Well I'm happy, but I certainly would not accept to be president of a coup. I am in favour of a process leading to elections, that's why I participated in the Marcoussis Accord and I will play my part in this process. We have appointed ministers to the reconciliation government, we will put our party forward to contribute and we do hope to have election in two years. Yes.

Are you really committed to this government? It’s only got a life of six months and clearly the rebels have got grave doubts about participating. I think also your own delegates were at one point quite reluctant to take their seats.

You should not put that question to me, but to President Gbagbo because it is clear that he is not committed to the reconciliation government. I was in Marcoussis. I was in Paris when we had the discussions with President Chirac, President Bongo, Kofi Annan, [ex-] President Bedie, Soro Guillaume (MPCI leader), myself, when we agreed to everything and thereafter Gbagbo denied everything.

Does that include the two controversial ministerial posts of defence and interior for the rebels?

Exactly, I was there. Kofi Annan and all of us were there, so clearly this is a man who has no vision, and commitment to what is important for his country and for the reputation and image of his country. So that's one.

The second thing is that even after we went to Accra [for talks hosted by Ecowas chair President Kufuor] - I participated in that meeting also - and found a compromise again to help the process, still Gbagbo is not wanting to implement fully the recommendations on the decisions of Accra and Kleber.

Meaning what? The delegation of authority to the prime minister according to the Marcoussis Accord is a full delegation of power for implementing the accord until the next presidential elections. [But] Gbagbo has made a decree giving only six months of life to the government and not giving the prime minister full executive power to implement the policies which would be needed to implement this.

Thirdly, in the formation of the government, the question of the ministries of security and defence have not yet been settled and the post of minister of women’s affairs - to which we have appointed someone - has not yet been accepted by President Gbagbo [at the time this interview was recorded].

So it is clear already that President Gbagbo is not implementing the Marcoussis Accord. The insecurity problem is still there. Problems in the west - I understand engineered by Gbagbo and government troops - and in Abidjan because of the death squads which threatened our lives.

So it’s better to say that Gbagbo does not believe in Marcoussis. He has no intention of implementing Marcoussis. I think he's still on the path of a military solution, rather than a negotiated solution and this is very bad and I think the international community has to be aware of this and put pressure on him, put pressure on all of us; since he's the one who is against it, it will be clear. But he is not on board for implementation of policies leading to free elections in two years.

What's been the impact of this episode, do you think, on Cote d'Ivoire? You spoke of the tribalisation of the armed forces. Is it correct to say there has been polarisation of the society?

Yes, I think when the crisis started, President Gbagbo and his gang tried to show this as an ethnic and then religious problem. Unfortunately for them it did not work.

Before we knew who was the head of the rebellion, they said it came from General Guei, and then they said it came from the north, and then from Burkina. Then the rebellion started in the west. Then they said, no, no, no, this was done by the Muslim community. All of the sudden the head of the rebellion is a former seminarian, Guillaume Soro. And so forth.

In my view, there are ethnic tensions. They've been exacerbated by what has happened. There are religious problems, although they were not at the centre of the whole thing initially. But because of the way the death squads have been operating, targeting Muslims and people from the north, it has become a problem. And finally the government of President Gbagbo had implemented policies of ethnic discrimination and religious discrimination. So I think it's a whole pot of things that have been left together to boil and led to this crisis and the explosion.

Given the polarisation that has taken place, given that in an election you would probably be seen as a northern candidate, I'm wondering whether you feel you've done enough to heal the wounds? To put it another way, Mr Ouattara, would you say you may also bear responsibility for some of that polarisation?

Well I think only other people can judge, but my view is that a nation cannot be built without having very simple and clear democratic principles. That means a citizen is a citizen, all citizens are treated equal and that they have and should have the same rights. So basically that has been our fight, in our party.

In fact I have told several people that in my view, my personal ambition stops there because what I wanted for my country is to make sure that we get back on track and on the rails to lead us to democracy and that's why I left the different functions I had [in Washington, DC] where I could have stayed another ten years. So having contributed to the promotion of that - sadly we had to go through a war where a lot of people got killed - at least we seem to be going towards that objective.

Now, I'm the head of a party, an important party, some would say the most important party in Cote d'Ivoire. I was elected in August 1999 for five years so my term is over in August next year. So there are several questions coming up. Will my party continue to trust me with the responsibility of being the head of the party? In that case, I would have to decide whether to accept or not. And secondly, will my party, or some other parties, want me to be the next presidential candidate? In politics so many things can happen in one day, one week, one month, let alone a year or two.

But would you like to run again, now that your Ivorian nationality issues appear to be resolved?

I think I certainly would like to give the Ivorian people the choice of president they think is best to run Cote d’Ivoire, to bring Cote d'Ivoire to modern status and I think I can offer a good contribution to my country to obtain that objective. Now if I run and I'm elected, fine. If I'm not, I will applaud whoever is elected and I will certainly give my support to that person.

But is it conceivable that someone could come to you and say "look, you've been associated with issues to do with nationality, to do with ethnicity for several years, whether you chose to be or not. Please step down and let someone who has no history of ethnic identity in our political environment take up the reins.".

I don't think people of the RDR would say that, because this is a common fight for all of us.

Secondly, that question should be addressed to those who created this problem for the country. I did not. I have been a victim. It's clear that those who created the problems are those who are in charge now, and who had been in charge before, so I have no bad conscience or problem to discuss these issues. I really would like my country to get into a democratic process, and my party to democratically choose a candidate. If it is me, I will consider. If it is someone else I will back the person and my part will get into the process.

What kind of response are you getting from members of Congress and the Bush administration during your visit to Washington, DC?

We've been quite pleased. Of course we were worried that the timing of the visit was not very good with the war and the post-war in Iraq but we have seen both in the administration and congress, very good knowledge of the problems, and recent developments in Cote d'Ivoire, and also good support for the issues that we have discussed, Security, involvement of the UN for more forces, more financing by the US and also implementation of the Marcoussis accord. On both fronts we've had very positive results in contacts with State department, White house, Congressional staffers and Congressmen we have met.

So this administration is monitoring the Ivorian situation?

No doubt about it. There is monitoring, there is clear engagement, good cooperation with the French government and follow-up with the UN, good support to Ecoforce and to the United Nations for the implementation of security agreements and the Marcoussis agreement.

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