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Guéï, Robert 1941–2002

Robert Guéï 1941–2002

Military leader

Robert Guéï inadvertently earned a place in African political history in 2000 as the first dictator to be ousted in a popular uprising on the continent. The former army general's ten-month-long reign in the West African nation of the Ivory Coast ended when demonstrators took to the streets after he declared himself the winner in a fraudulent presidential election that year. He died two years later in another incident in which his supporters attempted to foment unrest and destabilize a legitimately elected government.

Guéï, whose name is pronounced “gay,” was born on March 16, 1941, in Kabakouma, a village in the region of Man, the coffee-growing region of the Ivory Coast. His family was of Yacouba background, one of the West African ethnic tribes belonging to the Mande language group. At the time of his birth, the country was still a colony of France, but by 1960 it had achieved its independence. Guéï was schooled in neighboring Burkina Faso at the Ouagadougou military academy, and went on to further training in France at the Saint-Cyr officers' college.

Guéï returned home to a country that was enjoying the first decade of independence under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, its first native-born leader. During this era the Ivory Coast became “a beacon of prosperity and stability in west Africa,” noted Guardian writer Margaret Busby. A population of fifteen million, mainly French-speaking Ivorians, “lived peacefully for some thirty years, despite the diversity of sixty ethnic groups. The economy blossomed (the main exports being coffee and cocoa), and the standard of living rose.” Under Houphouët-Boigny, the country also took a leadership role in West African politics as one of the few stable nations of the region, though the president did outlaw political parties other than his own, the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI; Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast).

Controlled the Army

Rising through the armed forces to the rank of colonel, Guéï was made head of the armed forces in 1990 by Houphouët-Boigny. Three years later the longtime president died and was succeeded by Henri Konan Bedie, the new PDCI party chief. An air of distrust arose between them, however, when Bedie suspected that Guéï favored the presidential aspirations of Alassane D. Ouattara—a Muslim political leader, International Monetary Fund economist, and former prime minister—before the 1995 election. Bedie managed to disqualify Ouattara from the ballot via a new electoral law passed by the National Assembly, which required that candidates live within the country in the previous five years and that both parents be Ivory Coast citizens; Bedie claimed that Ouattara's father was from Burkina Faso. This angered a large section of the populace that supported Ouattara's candidacy, especially Muslims.

Bedie's reelection spurred opposition protests, and Guéï, who was still the head of the armed forces, refused to send in troops to quell the demonstrations. At the time, he claimed that “the army does not intervene unless the republic is in danger,” according to the Guardian report from Busby. Bedie suspected him of being involved in a subsequent plot to overthrow the government and placed him under house arrest, but no evidence was found that linked Guéï to the plan. He was eventually given a post in Bedie's cabinet as the minister for youth and sport but was fired in August of 1996, on the eve of the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, when yet another coup plot was uncovered. Four months later Guéï was discharged from the armed forces for misconduct, but his longtime service had won him many allies within the Ivory Coast army, and he was liked by many of the officers, who nicknamed him “Le Boss.”

Since Houphouët-Boigny's death in 1993, the Ivory Coast's economy had disintegrated, and by the end of the decade the government was struggling to meet its payroll, especially for its large standing army. As the 1999 Christmas season neared, tensions erupted, and “soldiers began rampaging through the capital to protest against poor pay and conditions,” wrote another Guardian journalist, Chris McGreal. “It is not clear whether…Guéï had put them up to it as the pretext for seizing power, or whether he took advantage of the mutiny.” Guéï's own version of events claimed that he was at his home in the country readying for the family's celebrations on Christmas Eve of 1999 when he was informed of a kidnapping attempt on Rose, his wife, in Abidjan.

From Spokesperson to President

Guéï went immediately to Abidjan and later said that he was so moved by the degree of popular support for the marauding army that he agreed to be the spokesperson for the movement to oust Bedie. His leadership duties, however, soon became apparent when he warned France not to send any more troops other than their small contingent of 550 soldiers already in the West African nation, though there were worries about the safety of the 20,000 French nationals living in the country. McGreal's Guardian report of December 27 noted that Guéï “urged workers to return to their jobs today, but a dusk to dawn curfew remained in place, with soldiers ordered to shoot suspected looters on sight.”

Guéï announced that he would serve as a caretaker president until the restoration of the democratic process, and one hopeful sign was his ordering of the release of a dozen leaders of Ouattara's party, the Rassemblement des Republicains (RDR; Rally of the Republicans), who had been jailed by Bedie. He also promised to root out the endemic corruption that had occurred after forty straight years of PDCI rule. But problems remained on several fronts, and when university students demonstrated, he sent in the army to halt the protests by force. Ouattara then returned from exile and planned to run in presidential elections scheduled for October of 2000, but once again he was prevented from a spot on the official RDR ballot. Furthermore, the country's supreme court barred another thirteen of the nineteen names submitted as candidates by other parties. Guéï announced that he would run as an independent candidate, which prompted more civil unrest.

A month before the election, Guéï claimed that an attack on his life had been made at his residence in the middle of the night, supposedly by rebel soldiers, but had been thwarted by his security force. Some believed it was staged to provide justification for further crackdowns by security forces. In the balloting on October 22, popular opinion favored Laurent Gbagbo, the leader of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (Ivorian Popular Front), a democratic-socialist party. Gbagbo was a history professor who had been jailed by Houphouët-Boigny back in the early 1970s for dissident activities. He was a Roman Catholic, as were Guéï and the other candidates, which prompted many Muslims—who made up 40 percent of the population—to boycott the election.

At a Glance …

Born on March 16, 1941, in Kabakouma, Ivory Coast; died of gunshot wounds on September 19, 2002, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; married Rose. Education: Attended Ouagadougou military preparatory school in Burkina Faso; École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, France.

Career: Entered the Ivory Coast armed forces and rose to the rank of colonel by 1990; named head of the armed forces, 1990 (discharged, 1997); cabinet minister for youth and sport, 1995-August 1996; installed as president of the National Public Salvation Committee, December 25, 1999, and president of the Ivory Coast, January 4, 1999; declared himself the winner of the October 2000 presidential election, but was ousted on October 25, 2000.

Made Audacious Move to Maintain Power

The earliest election returns had Gbagbo winning by a large percentage of the vote, with 51 percent to Guéï's 40 percent. But then, reported Time International correspondent Simon Robinson, “Ivorians glued to state television awaiting official results got a hospital soap opera instead. Two days after the vote, the Interior Ministry announced that because of irregularities with ballot papers the electoral commission had been dissolved.” Guéï declared himself the winner of the election, and in his “victory” speech he asserted to the nation that “today's success belongs to you. It is your victory over the cruel maneuvers of Ivory Coast's enemies.”

Protests immediately erupted in Abidjan, and Guéï's government responded by declaring a state of emergency and installing army tanks on civilian streets. Initially, the army fired on some protesters, but “as soon as the sun rose this morning,” noted New York Times correspondent Norimitsu Onishi, “tens of thousands of ordinary Ivoirians began marching from working-class neighborhoods surrounding the city center. In lines stretching several miles, the demonstrators moved through avenues littered with broken shop stands, burnt cars and burning tires.” Guéï's presidential guard stayed loyal, but rank-and-file soldiers began allowing the protesters to move past unmolested, and some even began waving at the civilians and laying down their weapons in a symbolic gesture. A battle began for the presidential palace. Guéï was forced to flee first to the German embassy, and then to his mountain village of Gouessesso, in the western part of the country. An estimated two hundred people were killed in the unrest.

Gbagbo was declared the winner of the election, and over the next year rumors of coup plots instigated by Guéï occasionally surfaced. In January of 2002 Gbagbo invited Guéï, Bedie, and Ouattara to a reconciliation summit, and the four leaders met in Yamoussoukro, the political capital of the country. All agreed to abandon nondemocratic bids for power, but in September of 2002 Guéï's supporters withdrew from Gbagbo's government, and further disturbances erupted and quickly escalated into gunfire.

On September 19, a day that marked the start of the Ivorian Civil War, Guéï's body was discovered on a street in Abidjan. His family claimed that he had been shot while eating lunch and that he had played no role in the fracas. Debate over his funeral and place of burial dragged on over the next four years. His supporters hoped he would be buried in his birthplace of Kabakouma, but a Muslim group, the Mouvement patriotique de Côte d'Ivoire (Patriotic Movement of the Ivory Coast), had held northern parts of the Ivory Coast, including Kabakouma, since 2003. His body remained in the municipal morgue in Abidjan until August of 2006, when his family finally laid him to rest in that city. His name is a favorite of e-mail scams originating from Nigeria and other parts of Africa, with the sender claiming to be his daughter Vanessa and asking for the recipient's help in retrieving the family fortune.

Sources

Periodicals

Guardian (London, England), December 27, 1999; September 21, 2002.

Newsweek International, November 6, 2000, p. 39.

New York Times, October 25, 2000; October 26, 2000.

Time International, January 17, 2000, p. 27; November 6, 2000, p. 51.

Times (London), September 20, 2002.

—Carol Brennan

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