Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ivory Coast: Visiting Alassane Ouattara's hotel HQ

By Mark Doyle
BBC News, Ivory Coast

A delegation of African leaders visit the presidential palace
A delegation of African leaders failed to persuade Gbagbo to quit

How times change. There is a hotel on the edge of Abidjan that we used to visit as a family on Sunday afternoons when I was the BBC's West Africa correspondent.

In those days, in the late 1990s, our first son was growing from being a toddler into a small boy.

We took him to the Golf Hotel to have pony rides in the extensive gardens lapped by the saltwater lagoons which snake around this city.

Well, I've just been back to the Golf Hotel again, for the first time in over a decade.


This time I flew there in a United Nations helicopter. Because the Golf Hotel is now a virtual state-within-a-state.

It is the headquarters of the government-in-waiting of Alassane Ouatarra, the man who almost all observers believe won the November presidential elections in Ivory Coast.

UN helicopter
UN helicopters operate from the grounds of Abidjan's Golf Hotel

He has been cheated of his prize by what the UN says is the manipulation of the real results by the man who refuses to leave the presidential palace, the incumbent leader, Laurent Gbagbo.

The UN chopper touched down in the large grassy field where our son used to be led around on a pony by a stable-lad.

On one side of the field I spotted, still there, the pony club offices. But, on the other side, there was a company of United Nations troops from Senegal dressed in army combat fatigues.

Suddenly, the post-electoral crisis in Ivory Coast became very real to me.

The UN peacekeepers are there to protect Mr Ouatarra and his colleagues from the sometimes violent youth group loyal to Laurent Gbabgo that is known as the "Young Patriots".

In the late 1990s Alassane Ouatarra was a politician out in the cold. He hails from the largely Muslim north of the country. The southern political elite, which is mostly Christian, had conspired to exclude him from running for office.

Their argument was that Ouatarra was not a real Ivory Coast citizen because he had relatives in the neighbouring state of Burkina Faso.

But after 20 years of legal and political battles, the northerner finally got all his nationality papers in order.

He ran for president last year in what most people here think was the most democratic election Ivory Coast has ever had. And, according to the United Nations, Alassane Ouatarra won.

Garden paths

The day I visited the Golf Hotel - the one with the soldiers, not the pony rides - Mr Ouatarra's government was holding a cabinet meeting in an air-conditioned tent in the hotel gardens.

Alassane Ouatarra (in the red tie) on the grounds of the Golf Hotel.
Alassane Ouatarra and his government are under UN protection

The ministers strolled up the winding garden paths in their dark suits and walked through the tent flaps into the meeting for all the world as if this was a normal government running a stable country.

But it was partly theatre, of course. The cabinet is in the bizarre situation of only holding a few of the reins of power that affect foreign relations.

African countries, for example, have given the government elect signing powers at the regional central bank. And Western countries have de-recognised ambassadors appointed by Laurent Gbagbo, allowing diplomats loyal to Alassane Ouatarra to take their place.

While the cabinet meeting was taking place, the president-elect was busy speaking on a hand-held satellite phone on the balcony of his suite overlooking the gardens.

I could hear that Alassane Ouatarra's conversation was in English but I did not linger to listen in - it seemed to be an intrusion on the man's unfortunate position - and anyway one of his security men would have seen me.

Mr Ouatarra clearly knew the BBC was visiting the hotel - because he gave me a friendly wave before continuing his chat on the phone.

Laurent Gbagbo is a big man with a broad, friendly-looking face. And when he wants to, he can turn on a huge, toothy grin

A few days later, on the other side of town, I joined a convoy of vehicles carrying a group of African leaders as they swept - sirens blaring - into the presidential palace.

Three African presidents had come to town to try to persuade Mr Gbagbo to step down.

More and more African countries these days have democratically elected governments. The continent is embarrassed by the spectacle of this immovable president.

Laurent Gbagbo has unconvincingly said that all the United Nations monitors and international diplomats and think tanks who watched the election… all got it wrong - it was he, not Alassane Ouatarra, who won.

Presentation skills

Mr Gbagbo has a media-savvy side as well. When he was in opposition, many years ago, I remember being introduced to him in his then modest, private garden.

He was relaxing in a vest and shorts at the time, but would not miss a chance to meet the BBC - so he stood up quickly and shook my hand firmly… even as he was buttoning up a fresh shirt.

At the doors of the presidential palace last week, Laurent Gbagbo was still deploying his presentation skills.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga is greeted by Laurent Gbagbo
Laurent Gbagbo greets the visiting Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga

He met each visiting African leader in person, calling them by their first names and embracing them like brothers.

Laurent Gbagbo is a big man with a broad, friendly-looking face. And when he wants to, he can turn on a huge, toothy grin.

He did so with each of the guests, holding them in place in front of the cameras with that firm handshake.

The first names and the jovial "mine host" welcoming style were quite deliberate, of course.

"Welcome, my fellow African president," Laurent Gbagbo seemed to be saying. "Welcome to my house, my friend, my fellow member of the Club of African Leaders."

Welcome to my house, which is of course a presidential palace and which, of course, you are not going to make me leave.

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Country profile: Ivory Coast
12 Apr 11 |  Country profiles


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