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Alassane Ouattara’s political baptism by fire

Twice excluded from past presidential races, former PM Alassane Dramane Ouattara (pictured) leads the opposition. takes a closer look at a candidate who has often been on the outside looking in.


Alassane Dramane Ouattara, president of Ivorian opposition liberal party Rally of the Republicans (RDR), must be breathing a sigh of relief these days. Consistently barred from the electoral process since the 1990s, Ouattara was finally able to check his own name on a ballot in Ivory Coast’s first round presidential vote on October 31.

Ouattara’s presence in the election was an unlikely and welcome turn of events for the man who served as prime minister under former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny from 1990 to 1993. Ouattara was indeed long forced to stifle his presidential ambitions because of doubts surrounding his nationality. In a country that succumbed to a wave of nationalism following the death of Houphouët-Boigny, affectionately known by supporters as “Papa”, Ouattara’s cardinal sin was having lived for too long outside Ivorian borders.

Born in 1942 in centrally located Dimbokro, the man nicknamed ADO spent part of his childhood in neighbouring Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) before leaving to study in the US. Ouattara was named deputy director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1968 and then, at age 40, vice governor of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). At that post, he was considered a citizen of Upper Volta, but Ouattara, a Muslim, had his Ivorian passport in tow by the time he took over as governor of the institution in 1988.

Rescuing a country in debt

Two years later, with Ivory Coast living beyond its means, ADO, then 48 years-old, was asked to assist President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in reining in the country’s finances. Though Ouattara was unknown to his compatriots, he was chosen by Houphouët-Boigny thanks to his prior experience as an economist. In turn, as prime minister, Ouattara established often unpopular austerity measures.

When President Houphouët-Boigny left home to seek treatment for his cancer in Paris, Ouattara had to man the ship alone, and garnered international sympathy for his efforts to keep Ivory Coast from sinking further into debt. ADO’s rise to international recognition was viewed sceptically by other Ivorian political heavyweights, like National Assembly President Henri Konan Bédié and socialist opposition figure Laurent Gbagbo.

Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, and Ivorians from the Muslim north, a region that was largely supportive of Ouattara, rallied behind the prime minister’s aspirations to run for president. ADO therefore created the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party with his eye on the 1995 presidential election. But the revision of the electoral code ordered by interim President Henri Konan Bédié required all presidential candidates “to have Ivorian-born parents, to have never turned in their Ivorian nationality, and to have lived in Ivory Coast continuously for five years before the election in question”. The new regulations disqualified Ouattara, who returned to work at the IMF after stepping down from his position in government.

The eternal scapegoat

The RDR became, at that point, an opposition party that rivals strove to drive off the political stage. Under the successive presidencies of Henri Konan Bédié (1995-1999), Robert Gueï (1999-2000), and Laurent Gbagbo (in power since 2000), the former prime minister found himself facing a wide range of farfetched accusations: the 1999 Christmas coup against President Henri Konan Bédié, elected four years earlier, as well as an attempted coup against the Gbagbo regime in 2002.

Considered by many of his countrymen as an “imported product” whose “unknown nationality” resulted in his exclusion from the 2000 presidential race, Ouattara was forced into exile in 2002. He returned to Ivory Coast four years later, seeking to ensure that his supporters did not drift toward other political leaders.

For Ouattara, Sunday’s presidential vote will be the climax in the candidate’s very first presidential campaign. Like rivals Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo, the former prime minister has been seeking votes outside of his traditional base of support. Far from the north that has long been a boon for him, ADO is trying to conquer the hearts of voters who still see him as “foreign” and to erase his reputation as an austere figure keeping his distance from the people.

Days before the election, Ouattara had been confident; citing internal polls that had not been published.

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