All Things Considered

December 26, 1999

The president of the Ivory Coast--or the Cote d'Ivoire, as it's formally known--fled his country today in a plane offered by France. The departure of President Henri Konan Bedie follows a surprise coup Friday by a former army chief of staff. The Cote d'Ivoire has long been known as one of the most stable nations in Africa--independent since 1960. The overthrow of the government last week was bloodless, if unexpected. Chris Fomunyoh is director of Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute here in Washington. He just returned from a trip to the Ivory Coast last week where he met with then President Bedie and other leaders. He, too, was caught by surprise at the takeover by former General Robert Guei.

Mr. CHRIS FOMUNYOH (National Democratic Institute): I've spoken with a number of people on both sides within the ranks of opposing parties, civic organizations, as well as some of the former members of Cabinet. And in many ways, people have confirmed the demonstration is calm. And it's surprising that there hasn't been any reaction even from the ruling party, which is an indication that they may have been a real disconnect between President Bedie and his close associates and how they felt around the country from the way in which the rest of the citizenry was judging their performance in government.

LYDEN: Were you surprised that this coup occurred or did it seem to you that while the situation might be tense, it had been so for some time, and there was no reason to expect that anything would really occur?

Mr. FOMUNYOH: Well, I'm a little surprised because the army in Cote d'Ivoire has been known to be very republican in nature. That's very respectful of civilian authority and civilian institutions, but at the same time, it's fair to say that the political tension that prevailed in the country for the last four months created an environment in which elements of the military could want to take advantage. And I think the stalemate had gone on for so long, and in some ways I'm not too surprised that this happened.

LYDEN: Now the coup was led by a general, Robert Guei. What can you tell us about him?

Mr. FOMUNYOH: General Robert Guei was a chief of staff of the Ivorian army from 1990 through 1995, and was actually fired in 1995 by President Bedie and so has been in retirement ever since then. So the coup that started off by--as an indication of working conditions by foot soldiers ended up with General Guei being pulled back from retirement by the troops and being asked to provide some leadership. So it's difficult to say whether he actually had participated in the planning or was brought in as somebody around whom consensus could easily develop. He's a professional soldier, who, in the past, while he served, already had a run-in with Bedie. The story about his being fired in 1995 had to do with him refusing to send out troops to track opposition party leaders and their supporters. He wanted those instructions to be given to him in writing by Bedie and also said that the military couldn't carry out police duties, at which point he was fired and Bedie claimed that he was empathetic to opposition parties.

So somewhere there in his career, there's a sense that he is somebody who respects civilian institutions and who has a good sense of legalities and who probably would not want to eternalize himself in power in Cote d'Ivoire.

LYDEN: Remind us why Cote d'Ivoire has been important in Africa and what its stability is relative to some of its neighbors.

Mr. FOMUNYOH: Well, Cote d'Ivoire has been pretty stable compared to other countries in the subregion. It's had a good economy. It's been ruled in the past from independence through 1993 by Houphouet-Boigny, who was somewhat of a visionary and a very conciliatory figure, but then it's got a sound economy that relies heavily on agricultural products such as cocoa and coffee. In fact, Cote d'Ivoire is the world's largest cocoa-producing country. And because of that, a number of Africans from neighboring countries, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, came across into Cote d'Ivoire to work in the plantations. And so it's got about one-third of its population that would identify with, I think, groups in other countries in the subregion. And so Cote d'Ivoire had taken on this importance as an economic hub for West Africa, but also because of the political stability before Bedie.

LYDEN: What are other African and Western leaders saying, if anything, about the transfer of power so far?

Mr. FOMUNYOH: Well, I think--my sense is that most African governments, as well as the international opinion or community, are in a bind because for the last four months, Bedie spent his time bashing and blasting the international community and asking them not to interfere in the internal affairs of Cote d'Ivoire at a time when various organizations and various Africa heads of states were asking him to sit down with the opposition parties to reconcile their differences and better prepare for the elections of next year. And so all of a sudden, now that he's been overthrown, his appeal to the international community may sound a little hollow, and I wonder that there's going to be enormous reaction. Obviously, nobody wants political power to be changed in various countries through the military or through coups. But I think we're going to be looking out to make sure that General Guei is judged by his deeds more than by his words, and that he sets out a timetable for a quick return to democratic civilian rule in Cote d'Ivoire.

LYDEN: Chris Fomunyoh, thank you very, very much for speaking with us.

Mr. FOMUNYOH: It's my pleasure.

LYDEN: Chris Fomunyoh is regional director for West and East Africa at the National Democratic Institute here in Washington.