Gen. Guei's Lost Chance
By Tom Kamara

August 22, 2000

The curtain is indeed closing in coup d'etats as anterooms for the presidency in Africa, with convincing signs that La Cote d'Ivoire will make history in West Africa by punishing an initially admired military ruler for interpreting the desire for change as an endorsement of his brand of politics. When Gen. Robert Guei, on Christmas Eve, overthrew the increasingly xenophobic and corrupt Konan Bedie, he insisted his takeover was "not a coup," and that, "Whatever the duration of our mission, we will do our best so that Ivorians who want to engage in politics in the interest of the whole country can do so." Singing and dancing Ivorians, celebrating an illusive new dawn and expecting better times, crowned him Le Pierre Noel (Santa Claus).

Now, as his real intention unfolds, Ivorian students, in their characteristic mode as restless crusaders for change, have again taken to the streets in protest against Gen. Guei's presidential bid. This sort of courage is rare in West Africa, and it indicates the changing times with warning to soldiers not to expect an easy ride to the top anymore. The Ivorian example, no doubt, will spread in West Africa so much in need for change and salvation from gunmen-politicians.

Paramount amongst Guei's mistakes is that he misjudged Ivorians' endorsement of his coup as a barometer for his personal popularity. It was not! Perhaps he is a victim of those self-seeking political parasites that abound in Africa, closet advisors, who always urge their boss to go for it simply to preserve their own interests and flee when the boss is butchered. Gen. Guei's strength was that Bedie's had simply outlived its usefulness as greed and graft consumed him in the midst of economic decline. When there is plenty to go around, there is hardly any notice paid to the few that eat more. Bedie and his clan were despised because they ate more in the midst of anger and suppression. As one of the many examples of the innate corruption within the Government, officials at the country's oil refinery, one of the most lucrative entities in the country, awarded themselves lavish entertainment bonuses outside their salaries. In 1997, the allowances "increased from 59.5 million CFA francs in 1997 to 94.5 million CFA francs in 1998, representing an increase of about 60 percent, while in 1999, the allowances galloped to 176.1 million CFA francs or a 86 percent upward movement", according to the Pan African News Agency.

Guei's investigation into corruption at the refinery also indicated that in 1998, "each administrator got 500,000 CFA francs daily for missions, while the company spent as much as 219.5 million CFA francs on gifts to unidentified persons and organisations in 1997 just as the same sub- head consumed 195.2 million CFA francs and 172.1 million CFA francs in 1998 and 1999, respectively," reported PANA. In an honorable attempt to depart from this culture of theft with impunity, the General also froze foreign bank accounts of a number of leading officials. Perhaps Guei will be remembered as one Ivorian who began removing the veil on the entrenched corruption in the country, one who challenged a confident clan that its grip on power was far from infinite.

"The spark that precipitated the coup d'etat was a dispute over military pay. But the pent-up anger felt by the military and civilians alike was directed at a corrupt government that had spent its way into bankruptcy. The governmenthad ambushed its power. As it grew more and more insecure, it did what all insecure government do: blame the foreigners and opposition political figures for the problems it created, and clamped down on dissident", said the Washington Post.

But Gen. Guei would have done well not to join the club of fat belly corrupt soldiers opting for military service only as a tool to steal power from civilians. His misfortune is that he arrived on the scene at the wrong time. The era of dancing and singing for men who steal power with promises for a better tomorrow only to end up as unscrupulous thieves is ending in Africa. Soldiers are no longer viewed as saviors, but parasites. Beginning from Mobutu Sese Sako to Nigeria's Sani Abacha, the hand of mass theft and creation of poverty, destabilization is all too present. The Nigerians are the lucky ones as they gradually retrieve the approximately $3 billion looted by Abacha. Zaire cannot say the same, for it is embroiled in self-destruction and living the legacy of Mobutu's kleptocracy.

Nevertheless, the temptation of power is something many Africans find irresistible and therefore self-destructive. As the trappings of politics got deeper into his head, "Santa Claus" became anathema, falling into the dismal category of inept and African gunmen determined to circumvent democratization for their own selfish ends. Guei opted for what all African soldiers rely on when they steal power and abort their people's desire for real change. The media became target as newspaper houses were invaded and ransacked while his storm troopers flogged critical journalists. There was no letup in the clampdown on journalists under his predecessor (Bedie) who found it quiet normal to imprison journalists for questioning him when he asked the French to contribute to Houphuet Boigny's funeral, something many Ivrorians correctly considered a national shame. But Ivorians, in their enthusiasm to see Bedie off their backs, also forgot that it was "Santa Claus" Guei who led troops on the University of Abidjan campus on a rampaging and raping mission in 1991. From then onwards he earned his reputation for toughness, along with a beautiful villa from the late Houphouet Boigny as reward for teaching the students useful lessons. But he would refuse a similar order from Bedie in 1995, sparking speculations that he was planning a coup and therefore fired.

Moreover, General Guei assumed power on a mountain of populism, condemning Bedie for injecting ethnicity in Ivorian life but found no hypocrisy in urging Ivorians to approve Bedie's concept of ivorite (a doctrine that questions the nationality of many Ivorians, particularly those from the north of the country) in recent constitutional referendum. In reference to the ethnic tensions that gripped the country before the coup, Guei assured Ivorians that, "From now on, no one should think they are more superior to anyone else." But today's La Cote d'Ivoire, in ethnic terms, remains as Bedie left it.

How people's mind work is sometimes baffling. That Ivorians could expect fundamental democratic changes under a man who led troopers on innocent students is the same logic convincing inept Liberians that men who were the most corrupt in Liberia's military junta, such as President Charles Taylor and Senate leader Kekura Kpoto, amongst dozens of others, can ensure democracy, development and propriety in Government.

Gen. Guei would have earned a place in the hearts of many Ivorians had he kept his word and remained out of active politics. But after months of dilly-dallying, he finally announced he wants the job and would go independent since he was not sure that the party he overthrew, Parti Democratique de la Cote d'Ivoire-Ressemblement democraitque africaine (PDCI-RDA) would carry him. Here lies his mistake and a lost opportunity that would have earned him an indelible place in Ivorian political history. He missed the opportunity of remaining decent and will pay the price in defeat if the elections are free and fair.