Cote d’Ivoire: Is Guillaume Soro the real power in Abidjan?

No sooner had Allasane Ouattara announced reconciliation and promised a government of unity in which all the country’s forces will be represented than he reneged on that promise by keeping New Forces rebel Leader Guillaume Soro as Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Is this because Soro has the backing of the rebel army and therefore has the guns to call the shots?

One man who must be biting his fingers is former president Henri Konan Bédié, a Christian, who was the PDCI candidate in the first round ballot and who gave his backing for the second round to the French backed cndidate in exchange for a pledge to be named Prime Minister in Ouattara’s new government.

This was indeed a strange and opportunist deal. It was Bédié as president who stripped Ouattara of his citizenship thus preventing him from running for president himself and which led to the December 1999 coup d’état. His Baoulé followers see Ouattara as a foreign usurper and the New Forces as Burkina nationals taking over the country. This is why so many did not heed his call to vote for Ouattara in the second round on November 28.

Ouattara needs Bédié’s support for his public image as a man reaching out to his adversaries of yesterday. Guillaume Soro knows this.

Soro, although a Catholic, is a divisive figure who played a major role in Cote d’Ivoire’s 1999 coup d’etat by General Robert Guei and then by becoming General Secretary of the rebel New Forces after their failed coup in 2002 and subsequent occupation of the northern half of the country. He is seen by those who oppose Ouattara as a traitor, a French puppet, the sidekick of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compoare and a man with lots of Ivorian blood on his hands.

So why keep Guillaume Soro as Prime Minister if he is so disliked by over half the country? Soro’s forces are the only organized military force Ouattara has, if you don’t count the French and UN troops who deposed President Laurent Gbagbo. These troops, Muslims from the north, accused by NGOs like Amnesty International of massive war crimes and crimes against humanity, now occupy the predominantly Christian south, a feat they could only accomplish courtesy of the French Army.

Two weeks after the French destroyed the Ivorian Army, Soro eliminated his long time adversary in the rebellion, ‘master-sergeant’ Ibrahim Coulibaly who helped orchestrate both the 1999 and 2002 coups. Coulibaly, whose “invisible commandos’” killed dozens of police and soldiers in Abidjan from December to April, often using civilian demonstrators as human shields, wanted recognition from Ouattara for his work. Soro sent his gunmen to kill him in Abidjan on April 27.

This was not the first time the two had clashed over power. They had fought for control of the north in June 2004. Coulibaly is believed to have been behind a rocket attack on Soro’s plane in Bouaké in 2007.

Ouattara is truly a man with no teeth. Soro seems to do the deciding. (He is reported to be negotiating some sort of deal to keep Bédié ‘on side’). This does not augur well for winning over the hearts and minds of the people who believe Laurent Gbagbo won the elections, that France and UN covered massive fraud in the north to put a lackey in power.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy is sending his Defense Minister to the Cote d’Ivoire “in the coming weeks” to prepare the French reconstruction of the Ivorian Army. It will be interesting to see if Soro allows Paris to take his teeth away by replacing his army or whether the French will go along with the sectarian military force. One thing which would be extremely embarrassing is if the French have to fight the army they have protected and aided since 2002.

It is hard to analyze the palace intrigues in Abidjan today given the little amount of information available. But Soro knows better than anybody else that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.