Army Is Ouattara Achilles’ Heel as Ivory Coast Economy Roars

  • Two-day army mutiny over unpaid bonuses paralyzed the country
  • Former rebel commanders still wield influence in army

As Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara presides over Africa’s fastest-growing economy and leads a ruling coalition that’s just won a fresh majority in parliament, he still faces a key threat to national stability: the army.

A two-day mutiny by soldiers demanding better pay and living conditions that paralyzed several cities last week was the second uprising in three years. It showed that the world’s biggest cocoa producer is still vulnerable after emerging from a decade-long conflict that ended in 2011 when Ouattara, 75, came to power. Tensions may also rise over the contest to succeed Ouattara in 2020 and the failure to reconcile the two former warring sides.

“It’s a warning sign,” Bjorn Dahlin van Wees, Africa analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said by phone Tuesday from London. “Behind this picture of strong economic growth and investor interest, Ivory Coast has a lot of vulnerabilities. Many of the underlying problems, such as a discontent within the army, have been forgotten or hidden.”

Since taking office Ouattara has restored calm, overseen an economy that’s expanded an average of 9 percent a year, and led his ruling coalition to an emphatic win in last month’s parliamentary elections, taking 167 of the 255 seats. His grip on the 40,000-member armed forces is less certain, with many soldiers who helped bring him to power now feeling the government has failed to deliver on its pledges to pay bonuses and improve their living conditions.

Broken Promises

“These soldiers helped Ouattara take power but they consider that the promises given to them in 2011 haven’t been kept,” Arthur Banga, a military historian at Ivory Coast’s University Felix Houphouet-Boigny, said by phone. “It’s a major issue and the government should address it once and for all. If it doesn’t respect its commitments, there’s a risk things degenerate in the future.”

While the government acknowledged the soldiers’ claims were “understandable” and pledged to address their demands, Ouattara dismissed the heads of the army, police and gendarmerie on Monday.

The government has moved to improve conditions in the army, with lawmakers last year adopting a military planning law that provides for spending of 800 billion CFA Francs ($1.23 billion) through 2020 on infrastructure, equipment and training. It also needs to accelerate the training of the soldiers, who were recruited quickly during the rebellion, Banga said.

Defense Minister Alain Donwahi is scheduled to travel Friday to the central city of Bouake for talks with the disgruntled soldiers, according to the ministry.

Ivory Coast’s army fell apart six years ago when former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to acknowledge his defeat to Ouattara in a November 2010 vote. After five months of violence, rebels in the north joined loyalists in the south to dislodge Gbagbo and help install Ouattara as president.

Rebel Fighters

The protesting soldiers are mostly former rebel fighters who supported Ouattara. Last week they took control of Bouake, their former stronghold, before the revolt spread to other cities including the commercial capital, Abidjan.

Many remain loyal to former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who was re-elected Monday as speaker of the National Assembly.

“Ouattara doesn’t have a strong grip on the army, there are large parts of it that are still tied to the rebellion dynamic and Soro’s system,” Rodrigue Kone, sociologist at the University of Bouake, said by phone. While there’s no indication that Soro was behind the mutiny, he said, “it put him back on the stage.”

As parliamentary speaker, Soro used to be first in line to succeed Ouattara if the president became incapacitated. That changed on Tuesday when Ouattara installed Daniel Kablan Duncan in the newly created office of vice-president.

Former Commanders

Last week’s revolt also highlighted the influence of other former insurgent leaders. On his first trip to Bouake to meet with the protesting soldiers, Donwahi was accompanied by Issiaka Ouattara, a ex-rebel figure who’s now deputy commander of the Republican Guard.

Former rebel commanders continue to have a leading role in the army and exert “independent political and financial influence,” a United Nations panel said last year.

“There are parallel chains of command within the military,” Dahlin van Wees said. “At the moment, it’s not a major threat but once the succession battle heats up, and if Ouattara’s coalition starts to weaken or fracture, it could become much more of a threat to overall stability.”

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