Reporter's Notebook: Dinner date with Ivory Coast's PM Guillaume Soro
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On a reporting mission in Burkina Faso, FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto has a chance encounter with Ivorian Prime Minister Guillaume Soro. But as his country slides into civil war, Soro slides out of attempts to interview him.
Under a starry African sky, as a gaggle of geese waddled around a pool in a palatial house in an upscale neighbourhood of the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou, I had dinner with Ivorian Prime Minister Guillaume Soro. We ate African barbecued chicken, drank French champagne, and discussed the state of the world as the geese honked on disconcertingly.
It was a memorable night, followed by crashing daytime disappointments and now we’re back to square one: still chasing Guillaume Soro.
It all began on the eve of the opening of the Panafrican Festival of Film and Television of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Africa’s largest film festival. FRANCE 24’s three-member “Team Ouaga” -- as we fancifully call ourselves -- had arrived in the dusty West African city to cover the festival.
My French language counterpart, Fatimata Wane and I were having dinner with friends at a rather strange boudoir-like Ouagadougou restaurant, when Thierry Hot, general manager of the monthly “Notre Afrik” magazine, suddenly disappeared from the table.
Hot -- a former BBC correspondent and an old West Africa hand who knows everyone worth knowing in this region -- lives up to his enviable surname.
So when he returned to the table, we demanded an explanation for his prolonged absence.
That’s when he informed us that Soro was in the house. Menus dropped as imaginary gunshots marked the start of our race to interview the Ivorian leader.
Ivory Coast - a former West African economic powerhouse, which shares a 584- kilometre border with Burkina Faso – is sliding inexorably toward civil war part two.
The latest crisis was sparked by a familiar African political malaise: an incumbent leader refusing to acknowledge an election defeat.
But in Ivory Coast, it’s got a new twist, with the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, holed up in a luxury hotel guarded by UN forces, while the defeated candidate, Laurent Gbagbo, commands his loyalists from the presidential palace.
At 39, Soro - who currently serves Ouattara’s prime minister - has had an eventful life that includes stints as student leader, rebel chief, peace negotiator and prime minister (at different times) of Ivory Coast’s rival presidents.
Not many of us can boast such a resume and I was surprised to discover that Soro is a rather low key, preternaturally calm, watchful man of medium height.
The Ivorian prime minister was dinning in a private room with a group of men that included former Burkinabe justice minister Boureima Badini, widely considered the architect of the 2007 Ivorian peace deal that brought an end to the 2002 civil war - but which now lies in tatters.
We didn’t want to disturb his dinner, but could we have an interview please, please, pretty-please?!
No problem, no problem. Business cards are handed out. No appointments are fixed and that should have raised alarm bells, but perseverance is the name of the game in this business.
After two days of frantically trying to nail him, we suddenly got a phone call late Tuesday just as we were leaving the hotel for dinner.
Sprinting back into the hotel, we picked the camera gear and rushed the cab driver to the Laico Hotel, or “Hotel Libya” as it’s popularly called here, since it’s owned by the Libyan African Investment Company.
Built in the glory days of Burkinabe-Libyan relations, when Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafy were great chums, the hotel features smiling photographs of the Libyan and Burkinabe leaders.
Long minutes ticked before Hot's car arrived to drive us to the former Burkinabe justice minister Badini’s palatial home in the Ouagadougou 2000 neighbourhood.
That was the venue of our surreal dinner under the African stars.
Secret service types searched our bags and gear before we were allowed into the poolside area where Soro, in a crisp white shirt, stood engrossed in a Samsung tablet, a smaller version of Apple’s iPad.
As Soro poked and prodded the tablet, the gadget’s proud owner, former Senegalese foreign minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, sang its praises.
But Gadio stopped the second he spotted Senegal-born Fatimata, and hooted with delight. Apparently Gadio had a teenage crush on Fatimata’s aunt during his Dakar schooldays.
We settled down as Gadio recounted tales of fervently penned love poems for Fatimata’s aunt. Soro in turn reminisced about his hopeless schoolboy infatuations. The two men who, just seconds ago were enraptured by a high-tech gadget, bemoaned the death of the love poem in the Twitter age.
Welcome to hospitality West African style – nothing can be rushed and all must take place in good time.
A supplicant manservant emerged from the immensity of the dark, quiet house with platters of food as more wine bottles were uncorked. The geese sounded increasingly displeasing under the weak poolside lights and my little camera jammed as I struggled to resuscitate it as innocuously as possible.
Sitting deceptively relaxed next to me, Soro took in every detail of the setting with the heightened suspicion of a military man. Occasionally, one of his two cell phones rang and I attempted to eavesdrop although he outwitted me by mostly doing the listening and saying very little.
The reports were coming in from the Abobo neighbourhood of the main Ivorian city of Abidjan, a Ouattara stronghold, and they didn’t sound good. Electricity had been cut in northern Ivory Coast, a region controlled by Soro’s New Forces rebels.
The Ivorian prime minister’s short term forecast for his country was bleak. He’s convinced that Gbgabo wants a civil war and he’s afraid that Gbagbo will once again get what he wants.
I’m curious about Soro’s stint as Gbagbo’s prime minister from 2007 until his resignation following the post-election fracas last year. What was it like for a rebel chief who fought against Gbagbo to work with him? And what’s his personal take on Gbgabo?
“It was difficult,” said Soro, referring to his time as Gbagbo’s PM. But he didn’t offer details. As for his personal take on Gbagbo, the Ivorian prime minister believes Gbagbo is intelligent, clued in, and he knows what he’s doing. He’s no Gaddafy.
I’m getting a sense of the deep antipathy between Soro and Gbagbo. The Ivorian prime minister roundly dismissed any suggestion of a “Kenyan compromise” – that saw Raila Odinga take on the prime ministership as a compromise following incumbent Mwai Kibaki’s refusal to concede an election defeat.
So what can the international community do to help resolve the current situation?
Not much, according to Soro. The international community has done what it can – it has recognized Ouattara and his ambassadors, and it has imposed sanctions. “Now it’s up to the Ivorian people,” he said.
Does that mean an Ivorian uprising along the lines of Tunisia and Egypt? He looked me in the eye and said, “Ivory Coast may not be the next Tunisia and Egypt, it could be the next Libya.”
Listening to him, I made mental notes of new questions to interrogate him. I dreamed of fleeing the festival and hopping on the next flight to Abidjan. Instead, I was stuck tackling my chicken as Badinet, a gracious host, piled our plates with more food.
Dinner done, supplicant manservant arrived with a bucket of water and a towel, moving between the diners as we washed our hands the West African way. A new bottle of Courvoisier cognac now did the rounds. Team Ouaga declined. Soro lit up a cigar and looked relaxed as he swirled cognac in a sifter.
Time to finally bring up the mundane business of the interview. But Soro, an unusually calm man, erupts. “Interview? No, no, no!” In a bid to lighten the situation he joked that the time was not right - he had just been drinking. I quipped the time was perfect - he had just been drinking.
More cajoling, pleading, beseeching. “Later, later, call me tomorrow,” he said as he roared off into the Ouagadougou night, secret servicemen screeching behind him.
We did call him the next day – one, twice, three times a day. And the day after. And the next. Until our last full day in the Burkinabe capital, when we desperately drove through the Ouagadougou 2000 asking every doorman for directions to Soro’s house since we know the Ivorian prime minister has a house in the Burkinabe capital.
Late last week, African Union leaders were meeting in Mauritania. Next week, they will be meeting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The situation on the ground in Ivory Coast deteriorates with New Forces rebels claiming to capture a few towns in the key, cocoa-rich western region. This smells more and more of civil war.
The UN says more than 300 people have died in post-election violence. Ouattara administration officials put the figure at more than 1,000. Soro has slipped through our fingers this time and I really can’t blame him, he has a lot on his plate. But if there’s ever another dinner meeting, I’m going to roll that camera and shoo away the geese.