By Benjamin Roger, and Vincent Duhem
Suspected of “attempting to undermine the authority of the state,” the former president of the national assembly is the target of an international arrest warrant that has jeopardised his presidential ambitions. Now a die-hard opponent, can he ever make a comeback?
Where is Guillaume Soro as 2020 begins? In Paris, or so he told some people, where he celebrated Christmas with his wife and children? Or, instead, in Barcelona, as he told others? The 47-year-old has not found it difficult to slip back into his old habits of living in hiding.
A culture of secrecy, distrust bordering on paranoia, an ability to cover his tracks and a tendency to compartmentalise his relationships: these characteristics have always defined his modus operandi, including when he was a member of the Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire and, a few years later, when he became a part of the rebel group Forces Nouvelles de Côte d’Ivoire.
Targeted by an international arrest warrant and forced to live in exile in Europe since his failed attempt to return to Abidjan on 23 December 2019, he currently has no other choice but to fall back into his old habits.
The former president of the national assembly had been preparing his return for several weeks prior to that fateful day. He planned to launch initiatives via his political movement, Générations et Peuples Solidaires (GPS), and to kick off his campaign for the October presidential election. As the date approached, envoys of the current regime, some African heads of state and even Blaise Compaoré contacted Soro to try to persuade him otherwise. A relative of the Burkinabe former president in exile in Abidjan said that “we tried to work things out. He needed to back down, but we weren’t able to convince him to do so.”
A final attempt to negotiate was made in the last 72 hours through various channels. Soro’s right-hand man, Mory Cissé, and the minister of arts and culture, Sidiki Konaté, who was also Soro’s close ally during the rebellion, played a key role in the talks. President Alassane Ouattara’s brother and minister of presidential affairs, Téné Birahima Ouattara, contacted Sindou Meïté, one of Soro’s top associates.
Give or take a few minor details, the message was always the same: “The president wants you to come home in January, after the holidays. He doesn’t think it’s the right time yet. He would like to know more about your intentions first.” Soro did not want to hear any of it, but he issued a statement – purportedly as a token of good will – in which he announced that he would meet with Ouattara. According to his entourage, Soro was then assured that he would not be arrested when he arrived in Abidjan.
However, a person close to Ouattara has said that this is “false. The president simply indicated that the plane wouldn’t be prevented from landing. Soro was very much aware that Ouattara had decided to have him arrested.”Daily newsletter: join our 100 000 subscribers!Each day, get the essential: 5 things you need to know Sign up Also receive offers from The Africa ReportAlso receive offers from The Africa Report’s partners
A permanent rift
Over the past several months Ouattara alluded to arresting Soros in front of his inner circle. “If he comes back, I’ll have him arrested,” he told them over and over again. The man he once regarded as a “son” has now become, in his eyes, a “little thug gone bad”.
For years now, some of the president’s closest allies have tried to convince him of the danger Soro posed, coming up with a plethora of allegations, including some outrageous ones. At first, Ouattara refused to see him as a threat. On several occasions, like when a French judge issued a bench warrant for Soro in December 2015, or when Burkina Faso decided to issue an international arrest warrant for him in January 2016 for his alleged involvement in a failed coup led by General Gilbert Diendere, the Ivorian president supported him. “I’ve come to his rescue plenty of times,” he regularly commented.
The mutinies in January and May 2017 marked a turning point. Ouattara was confident that Soro was mixed up in it. The rift became permanent. From then on, Ouatarra felt it was necessary to weaken Soro politically and militarily, which explains at least in part why he appointed Hamed Bakayoko as minister of defence in July 2017. The former prime minister’s finances began to be monitored and several businessmen suspected of being his benefactors were set straight. Ouattara continued to try to keep Soro close.
Despite the tension and broken trust, Ouattara hoped up until the last second that Soro would play an active role in the Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP) and that he would accept to serve Amadou Gon Coulibaly, Ouattara’s handpicked successor. However, it is impossible for Soro, who views the presidency as his destiny and has never been able to swallow that Ouattara prefers Gon Coulibaly over him, to accept. His refusal to join the RHDP left him with no other choice but to resign from his position as president of the national assembly in February 2019. For Ouattara, Soro had gone too far. From that point forward, anything would be fair game.
Calm and determined
In the hallways of the presidential residence, people make fun of Soro’s fall from grace, while still suspecting him of wanting to stage a coup. In the first six months of 2019, several dozen people suspected of attempting to destabilise the regime were arrested, including Dramane Koné, a former lieutenant under Colonel-Major Issiaka Ouattara, known as Wattao, who died on 5 January 2020.
When Koné was interrogated at the offices of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, the investigators’ questions left no room for doubt: “Are you aware of a plan to destabilise the current regime to facilitate a politician’s takeover of said regime? Do you know Guillaume Soro?” On 7 August 2019, the chief of staff of the army made it known that he suspected several sub-officers of wanting to disrupt the independence day military parade. Once again, the government pointed its finger at Soro, accusing him of instigating the supposed plot.
Marginalised and threatened with arrest if he returned to Abidjan, Soro saw his future suddenly cloud over and his presidential ambitions thwarted. “As things currently stand, he can’t run for president in 2020. However, the situation could change,” said one of his supporters in the sub-region. Some members of Soro’s entourage have set up headquarters in Paris and describe him as “calm and determined”.
Nevertheless, the news out of Abidjan is not reassuring. About 15 of Soro’s close allies, including members of parliament, have been put behind bars. Nobody knows what has happened to his younger brother, Rigobert. As for his loyal supporters who have stayed behind in Côte d’Ivoire, they are keeping a low profile and some even are considering leaving the country.
Despite the crackdown, Soro is trying to keep his political movement alive. He also plans on taking the battle to the courts with the help of his Spanish and French lawyers to prove his innocence. His legal team is expected to file several complaints in the near future with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, Soro is considering suing the people he alleges as having recorded his conversations without his knowledge, such as Franco-Algerian Akim Laacher.
Will he be able to recover from this new major setback? “He’s no stranger to adversity, but he always wins his battles. He always lands on his feet in the end,” said one of his advisers. An old friend added, “The election is a long way away, and Guillaume is only 47.”
Benalla, an inconvenient ally
Over the past few months, some observers have expressed doubts about his strategy, highlighting his inability to manage his teams and acquaintances. Not everyone is happy about the role that Alexandre Benalla occupies in Soro’s life. Long-time friends, Soro and the former deputy chief of staff to France’s President Emmanuel Macron lost sight of one another until their paths crossed again last June, when they had dinner at the Le Cabestan restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco. After that, Benalla introduced him to French businessman Vincent Miclet, whose house Soro would spend three days at in Marrakech.
According to one of Soro’s and Benalla’s mutual friends, “the meeting with Miclet didn’t go anywhere. But afterwards, Alexandre wouldn’t leave Soro alone. He helped him arrange his most recent stay in Paris and introduced him to people.” For example, Benalla helped arrange a talk Soro gave to students at Hautes Études Internationales et Politiques in Paris on 28 November.
Particularly visible in the weeks leading up to Soro’s publicised return to Abidjan, Benalla continued to act as his adviser. According to sources, he had a hand in facilitating the interview Soro agreed to give on 28 December to French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, in which Soro compared himself to General Charles de Gaulle and harshly berated Macron.
In Paris, where authorities were already irritated by Benalla’s activism in Africa, Soro’s media appearance did not go unnoticed. A source from the Élysée commented: “His remarks are unacceptable, just like his tweets. It’s disgraceful of him and too easy to target France as a scapegoat.”
Although Macron brought up the Soro case during his one-on-one meeting with Ouattara in Abidjan on 21 December, he refrained from voicing an unequivocal opinion. Paris is now waiting to find out if Interpol will approve or deny the arrest warrant sent to it by Abidjan. “That may take several days. Interpol has to review the validity of the grounds for arrest. If the warrant is approved, a Red Notice will be sent to all member states. At that point, we would carefully consider the allegations against Soro before making a decision about implementing the arrest warrant,” a source said in Paris. According to a source close to the case, “the Ivorian authorities announced the warrant quickly, in spite of the fact that the case was incomplete.”
With his image tarnished yet again, Soro appears utterly alone for now. He expressed concern about the little support he has received. The feeble efforts made by some African heads of state to calm the situation have yet to produce any results. Although Soro’s inner circle maintains that Henri Konan Bédié consoled him via telephone, the president of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) did not publicly take his side.
“In the end, it works out for everyone that Soro can’t run for president. Even for Bédié, since Soro was an inconvenient ally, both within the PDCI and the alliance he is trying to form with Laurent Gbagbo, who doesn’t want to have anything to do with the former rebel chief.”
While Abidjan denies that it wanted to eliminate a political opponent, Soro’s side-lining leaves the field wide open for the RHDP in northern Côte d’Ivoire, where he was the only candidate capable of eroding the unified party’s electorate.
Ouattara, who is on the front line of the fight given that he has been personally overseeing the management of the Soro case, is untroubled by the matter. “I know what I’m doing,” he confided to his entourage. According to a member of Ouattara’s inner circle, “This is a test. If it turns out that the case against Soro isn’t solid enough, he will be accused of blocking Soro’s candidacy ahead of the upcoming election, which may undermine his power.”
Soro has denounced Ouattara’s actions as an extensive manipulation campaign to prevent his candidacy and believes that none of this would have happened if he had accepted to incorporate his movement into the RHDP and give up on his presidential ambitions. He has also threatened his former ally with the prospect of revealing incriminating secrets about their long, complex past relationship.