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“The Good Coup” of 1999—the Very First Coup in Côte d’Ivoire

In December 1999, Côte d’Ivoire experienced its first ever coup d’état after years of stability and economic growth—a coup that brought hopes for a better political situation, but then shattered them in an outbreak of violence and fear for the fate of the country.

Ivory Coast (2010) Sanofi Pasteur / Norbert Domy | Flickr
Ivory Coast (2010) Sanofi Pasteur / Norbert Domy | Flickr

Côte d’Ivoire’s was one of the strongest economies in Africa, with the country prospering for forty years. However, the political situation was not ideal: the opposition often found itself suppressed or prosecuted, ethnic tensions were growing, and the situation only deteriorated under President Henri Bédié. The first military coup in Côte d’Ivoire began on December 24, 1999, and resulted in the overthrow of the government. The coup’s organizer, General Robert Guéï, announced the ouster of President Bédié himself. Many believed it was a “good coup” and hoped that it would bring about change in the political environment.

A good first step toward ensuring free and fair elections involved allowing former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara [and the current president of Côte d’Ivoire since 2010] to run for office, since he was denied that opportunity in 1995. These hopes quickly disappeared in 2000 when Outtara was once again barred from participating in the presidential election. The one opposition candidate allowed to run, Laurent Gbagbo, received more votes, but Guéï refused to recognize the result and falsely announced his victory. Ivorians took to the streets to protest, which ultimately brought Gbagbo to power. Ouattara’s supporters, however, were outraged at his exclusion from the election and attempted protests that were violently suppressed. The human rights situation deteriorated, and the country was bloodied by fear, violence, and growing instability, which contributed to the outbreak of the First Ivorian Civil War in 2002. The unrest continued for many years after.

Ambassador Robert Jackson was a political and economic counselor at the Côte d’Ivoire Embassy during the outbreak of the coup and witnessed the happenings firsthand. In his interview with ADST, he recounts the coup and its severe effects on the country.

Ambassador Robert Jackson’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on February 21, 2019.

Read Ambassador Robert Jackson’s full oral history HERE.

Read about former president of Côte d’Ivoire Félix Houphouët-Boigny HERE.

Drafted by Yulia Siverikova.

ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.

Excerpts:

“. . . Côte d’Ivoire was seen as an island of stability, even though the debate about Ivoirité was bubbling.”

           
Alassane Ouattara UNESCO 09-2011 (2011) Hugo Passarello Luno | Wikimedia
Alassane Ouattara UNESCO 09-2011 (2011) Hugo Passarello Luno | Wikimedia

The island of stability:
Q: . . . Côte d’Ivoire, kind of like Brazil, was always the country of the future. It has so many resources and its location is geographically great for basing companies there. But what was the political situation there? Was there political stability?

JACKSON: Everyone thought that the country was very stable. It had never seen a successful coup. This was 1998; so President Henri Konan Bédié had already been president for five years following the death of President Feliz Houphouët-Boigny. Alassane Ouattara, who had been Houphouët’s last prime minister, wanted to be president and left his post as Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund to return to Côte d’Ivoire to seek the presidency. He had strong credentials, but his father had been a traditional leader in what’s now Burkina Faso, and Ouattara had represented both Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire in the West African Economic and Monetary Union; so there were questions about whether he was an Ivorian. President Bédié promoted the identity issue as a way of sidelining Ouattara. However, millions of immigrants primarily from Mali and Burkina Faso lived in Côte d’Ivoire, not only in the northern, more Muslim part of the country, but in Abidjan and other southern cities as well. There were also Liberian immigrants and refugees who had fled fighting there. There were also immigrants from Guinea, which was governed by Sékou Touré’s successor, Lansana Conté at that time.

Thus, Côte d’Ivoire was seen as an island of stability, even though the debate about Ivoirité was bubbling. The day that Ouattara returned to Côte d’Ivoire was huge day for his political party, the Rally of Republicans (RDR), which had been part of Houphouët’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and then split from the ruling party. The RDR put on a huge show to welcome Ouattara back, and that stoked political tensions.

As political and economic counselor, I was looking primarily at the political issues with my deputy, Andy Snow, focused on the economy. That meant he was actively pursuing a bilateral investment treaty and looking at Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa crop since Côte d’Ivoire is the Saudi Arabia of cocoa and still the world’s largest producer. As an aside, every time you eat a chocolate bar you are likely eating some Ivorian cocoa. The country also produces a host of other agricultural products, including cotton, rubber, and pineapples. Côte d’Ivoire also exported fish, and the port of Abidjan is quite an important port. There were rumors that there might be significant amounts of oil off the coast although when oil was subsequently discovered, only small quantities were found, and they were not even sufficient for domestic needs. Many people worked on plantations, and many of them hailed from neighboring countries because President Houphouët had welcomed foreigner labor to fuel the country’s economy. The Ivoirité debate made those people uncomfortable, but they had no economic alternatives; so they continued to work there and watched as the political situation evolved.

“The debate about Ivoirité did not end, and we very quickly learned that there are no good coups.”

The coup of December 24, 1999:
Then, December 24, 1999, a group of disgruntled enlisted men who had been part of the UN peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic, mutinied over unpaid allowances and living conditions. The mutiny evolved in an interesting way. Mutineers first robbed some of the major grocery stores. That action led friends to call my wife about 10 o’clock in the morning, asking if she had any information about soldiers ransacking and robbing Sococe, the major supermarket in Deux Plateaux, one of the neighborhoods where many embassy employees, American and Ivorian, resided. Babs called me and I immediately started reaching out to contacts, often alerting them to the mutiny.

We later learned that President Bédié and some of his ministers had taken refuge at the French ambassador’s residence, which was located next to Houphouët’s official residence on the lagoon. The mutineers literally drove from the grocery store to the radio station, which was directly across the street from the then embassy in Abidjan. We saw them coming and saw them take over the radio station. It was a few hours later that former Chief of Defense Forces General Robert Guéï made a broadcast on the national television station surrounded by the enlisted men who stood behind him with their weapons as he announced a coup and the ouster of President Bédié. Many journalists and ordinary Ivorians speculated that this was “a good coup;” Alpha Blonde even wrote a song about the good coup in Côte d’Ivoire.

Many expected that General Guéï and his ruling military council would pave the way for genuine elections that would include Ouattara as a candidate; some thought Ouattara had organized the mutiny in order to run for president. In my meetings with him, it became clear that he had been caught by surprise and had no control over the mutiny or the military junta. The debate about Ivoirité did not end, and we very quickly learned that there are no good coups. A number of northern and Muslim generals became ministers in the new government, but things did not settle down. I was trying to figure out who was really in power. President Bédié and most of his ministers left the country after the French government ferried them across the lagoon to the French military base beside the airport, and General Guéï reportedly leaned on the enlisted men to allow the deposed leaders to depart.

On Christmas Day 1999, Ambassador George Mu, DCM Jackson McDonald, and I went to meet Guéï at one of the bases around Abidjan. We were shocked by the deplorable conditions on the base. Buildings were in very poor condition with roofs leaking. One could quickly see some of the sources of discontent that sparked the mutiny cum coup, and I didn’t wonder about the monetary motivations and the many stolen vehicles, which were eventually returned to their rightful owners. It was a tense few days with a curfew, leading up to roughly New Year’s Eve Y2K. All of our Y2K preparations and stockpiling of supplies and cash actually came in handy although not for their original purpose.

People enthusiastically welcomed 2000; there were fireworks everywhere. Ivorians and foreigners alike were very excited and optimistic about the new political environment. That optimism extended to former Prime Minister Ouattara and the members of his political party.

“Exiting the Presidential Palace, we all looked at each other and concluded that was not a good sign.”

           
Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo (2007) Voice of America/ M Motta | Wikimedia
Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo (2007) Voice of America/ M Motta | Wikimedia

In search of hope:
Initially, General Guéï said that he would not run for president; in fact, he said basically all the right things. However, enlisted men mutinied in March or early April, again protesting their remuneration and living conditions. That ended with a little bloodshed but not much. Then on July 4th, there was a major mutiny that was bloodier still. Ambassador Nancy Powell, who was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, came to meet with General Guéï and urged him to stick with his original plan to have free and fair elections. He gave us a preview of what was to come, ending the conversation by thanking her “for the lesson.” Exiting the Presidential Palace, we all looked at each other and concluded that was not a good sign. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court announced that Alassane Ouattara would not be allowed to run for president. That left General Guéï as the PDCI candidate and Laurent Gbagbo, a longtime advocate of democracy and leader of the smaller Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) as the only candidates. Most observers predicted an easy victory for Guéï, but Ivoirians had grown disenchanted with the military.

There was a 30-day campaign roughly coinciding with the month of October. The election seemed unremarkable, but, as the votes were being counted by the election commission on national television, Laurent Gbagbo held a significant lead when about 30 percent of the vote had been counted; then the television cameras were cut off. A couple hours later, General Guéï went on television to thank the people of Côte d’Ivoire for having elected him president. Well, Ivorians were having none of it. They knew that Guéï had not won. Thousands marched on the Presidential Palace, and Guéï was forced to flee by helicopter. The election commission confirmed Laurent Gbagbo’s victory, and he was sworn in a hastily arranged ceremony that night. Because of the security situation and U.S. concerns about the legitimacy of the election since a principal candidate had been excluded, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering decided that I would represent the United States at the inauguration.

I knew Gbagbo, his wife, and his closest aides better than any other official American; so I was a logical choice. The inauguration was very emotional—in part because neither Gbagbo nor his wife had expected him to be elected. Yet, there he was, newly inaugurated. People were again very optimistic since someone who had fought for democracy and human rights for years and who had been imprisoned for his politics was now head of state. He promised an inclusive government, but the next morning thousands of Ouattara’s supporters took to the streets demanding a new election. Gbagbo took a very hard line and insisted that there would be no new election, and the human rights advocates who had been in opposition now became the oppressors. . . .

It was emotional; people were optimistic; the promise of the good coup had been renewed. However, several very violent days followed. . . .

“. . . we documented that a number of Ouattara supporters disappeared and were never seen again—although mass graves were subsequently discovered.”

Human rights situation:
Most embassy employees were told to stay at home; those of us who did go to work went in armored vehicles escorted by the Regional Security Officers. It was tense; mobs blocked roads with burning tires and threw stones. Demonstrators were killed, and people were afraid to venture out. The Department decided that we should draw down and insisted upon ordered evacuation. In the end, we went to voluntary departure, and a number of family members left once the airport reopened.

However, this had become almost “normal.” As things settled down, Gbagbo moved into the presidential residence, which had not been occupied since Houphouët died. President Bedie had chosen not to live there, which proved ironic since he probably used the tunnel from the presidential residence to the French ambassador’s residence when he fled the December 1999 mutiny.

The human rights situation continued to be poor; in fact, it deteriorated. President Gbagbo agreed to hold parliamentary elections, and we were hopeful that those parliamentary elections would be smoother and more transparent than the presidential election. However, Gbagbo set what I would call a trap for Ouattara and his party, barring Ouattara from running for parliament just before the elections. In response, the RDR boycotted the elections—in spite of pressure from us to participate—and the result was a landslide for Gbagbo and to a lesser extent for the former ruling party, the PDCI. Ouattara was a great economist, but Bedie, Guéï, and Gbagbo all outmaneuvered him as a politician—at least until 2010. At the end of 2000, three of the four men who wanted to become president when President Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993—then Speaker of the National Assembly Henri Konan Bedie, then Commander of the Ivoirian Armed Forces General Robert Guéï, and FPI leader Laurent Gbagbo—had become president, and the fourth—then Prime Minister and later RDR leader Allasane Ouattara—had been shoved aside.

At the embassy, we grew more and more alarmed about deteriorating human rights. My team and I reported extensively on abuses by the security forces. On one particularly violent day after the presidential election, we saw the security forces taking women who had been protesting for the RDR presumably to be raped. We confronted the government and the military about what we had observed but never got satisfactory explanations. In any case, we documented that a number of Ouattara supporters disappeared and were never seen again—although mass graves were subsequently discovered. It was a tense time.

My spouse had left on voluntary departure after the airport reopened, spending seven weeks in the United States. During that time, the United States held our election with Governor George W. Bush running against Vice President Al Gore. When Americans started murmuring about stolen elections, Babs would tell them if they wanted to see a stolen election, they had only to look at Côte d’Ivoire. As Christmas 2000 approached, life calmed. Ouattara and his party were largely excluded from the political process; Gbagbo and his FPI were feeling invincible. That set the stage for yet another military mutiny and continued upheaval. Gunfire awoke us so many nights, and that continued long after we departed in June 2001.

“He wrote a fascinating cable before the coup in 1999, predicting that Côte d’Ivoire could experience the same kinds of unrest as Liberia and Sierra Leone had experienced. Those of us in Abidjan were very dismissive. . . .”

           
Transit site for families fleeing the Ivory Coast conflict (2011) Oxfam International, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | Creative Commons
Transit site for families fleeing the Ivory Coast conflict (2011) Oxfam International, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | Creative Commons

Aftermath and reflections:
. . . We left in June 2001 with President Gbagbo in power, and the military somewhat quiet, although there were occasional mutinies and Ouattara’s supporters continued to call for new elections and stage demonstrations.

Q: Was Ivory Coast’s economy affected?

JACKSON: The economy was not deeply impacted until years later when the country was divided between the north and south. During my time, cocoa continued to be produced and exported in huge quantities, and other agricultural production continued. The economy did not take a big hit, but foreign investors took a pause while they digested events; there was a significant decline in foreign investment on an annualized basis.

Q: And did we maintain a USAID mission?

JACKSON: Peace Corps remained. USAID only had a contractor to manage health programs, working primarily on HIV with the enormous Centers for Disease Control (CDC) team there. I mentioned our old building downtown. The United States had used Abidjan as a regional center for years. Because of the coup, we looked at whether that was sustainable but we decided that it was. We proceeded to plan a new embassy, which was desperately needed. The old embassy in an apartment building was barely functional. To give an example, to get from one side of the embassy to the other, you had to go down to the ground level, go outdoors, and go back inside. Such was the structure of the apartment house. The downtown streets in front of the embassy were closed off for security, and you can imagine that the public disliked that. It was awkward to say the least.

Ivorians were anxious for us to move to a new location on the east side of the city near the Riviera Hotel, which is where President Ouattara subsequently located the headquarters for his government in waiting. However, after I left we built a new embassy for more than 700 employees, including the significant CDC staff conducting research on HIV and malaria. During the unrest, one of our concerns was whether that research could continue. Many of the regional offices, the Marine regional headquarters, regional courier hub, agricultural attaché, commercial attaché, etc., moved into the new embassy but later had to relocate to other countries shortly after the new embassy was completed. By 2005, the number of people working in the embassy was about one third of what it had been when I left in 2001. So a new embassy was planned for Ghana; another was planned for Senegal, etc.

There’s an important point that I want to make. Tibor Nagy, who is now Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, was Ambassador to Guinea when I was a political/economic counselor in Abidjan. He wrote a fascinating cable before the coup in 1999, predicting that Côte d’Ivoire could experience the same kinds of unrest as Liberia and Sierra Leone had experienced. Those of us in Abidjan were very dismissive; yet he was obviously prescient in predicting the upheaval that came. He saw the dynamics there and was absolutely on the money.

Q: Wow.

JACKSON: I think it is wise for us to remember two things: 1) There is no such thing as a good coup, and 2) Just because a country has never experienced a successful coup does not mean that it won’t.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Government and Legal Studies, Bowdoin College 1974–1978
MA in Europe, Economics and Finance; George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs 1995–1997
MS in National Resource Strategy, National Defense University 2001–2002
Joined the Foreign Service 1982
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire—Africa Bureau, Political/Economic Counselor 1998–2001
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), Director of the Office for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy 2002–2004
Yaounde, Cameroon—Ambassador 2010–2013
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of African Affairs, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs 2013–2015
Accra, Ghana—Ambassador 2016–2018