Henri Konan Bédié, Ivory Coast president deposed in coup, dies at 89

Henri Konan Bédié, a former president of Ivory Coast who led the West African nation for six years, stoking xenophobia and ethnic tensions before being deposed in a military coup in 1999, died Aug. 1 at a hospital in Abidjan, the country’s largest city. He was 89.

The current president, Mr. Bédié’s longtime rival Alassane Ouattara, announced 10 days of national mourning for Mr. Bédié, who had continued to influence Ivorian politics for the past two decades as head of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast-African Democratic Rally. The party announced his death in a statement but did not cite a cause.

When Mr. Bédié assumed the presidency in 1993, Ivory Coast was one of the most stable and prosperous countries in West Africa, led for 33 years by Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Affectionately nicknamed “the Old Man” by his people, Houphouët-Boigny had helped shepherd the country through independence from France in 1960 and maintained close ties with the West, even as he outlawed opposition parties for most of his rule.

Although the country’s constitution provided for Mr. Bédié, the head of parliament, to take office after Houphouët-Boigny’s death, his passing opened a power vacuum. Mr. Bédié battled for several days to outmaneuver Ouattara, who was then prime minister, and was quick to assert himself, delivering a brief televised address after his predecessor’s death at 88.

“The constitution confers on me in this tragic moment responsibilities of whose weight I am aware, the responsibilities of a head of state,” he said. “I am assuming them from now.”

Where Houphouët-Boigny was a charismatic statesman, widely loved by his people before falling commodity prices triggered an economic downturn and unrest in the late 1980s, Mr. Bédié was regarded as more enigmatic and aloof. He was nicknamed the “Sphinx of Daoukro” for his hometown and was capable of the occasional rhetorical flourish, as when he boasted that he would turn Ivory Coast into the “elephant of Africa,” an economic powerhouse that could serve as a model for the continent.

His administration fell short of that goal, with corruption growing so rampant that the European Union and International Monetary Fund suspended aid. The government was also criticized for promoting the concept of “Ivoirité,” or Ivorianness, which Mr. Bédié used to refer to the country’s supposed national identity, at a cost to immigrants and other newcomers who made up an estimated one-third of Ivory Coast’s 16 million people.

Under Mr. Bédié, a Christian from the same Baoulé ethnic group as Houphouët-Boigny, Ivorian identity became a political weapon. The concept was used against immigrants who worked on cocoa plantations as well as political rivals such as Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, who was disqualified from running for president in 1995 after Mr. Bédié passed laws mandating that candidates must have two parents of Ivorian birth and must have lived in the country for the past five years. Ouattara had lived in Washington as an official with the IMF, and his father was reported to be from neighboring Burkina Faso.

The debate over Ivoirité “broke the national unity,” said Joachim Beugré, a journalist with the independent newspaper Le Jour. “This concept made people believe that anyone who came from the north was a foreigner,” he told The Washington Post in 2000, “while in Ivory Coast people came from all over the place.”

During the lead-up to the 1995 presidential election, Mr. Bédié’s first since taking office, the president claimed to champion “peaceful democracy” while cracking down on journalists and dissidents. Protesters were bludgeoned, street demonstrations were banned, and a newspaper editor and two reporters were sentenced to two years in prison after publishing a headline that suggested Mr. Bédié’s presence brought bad luck to Ivory Coast at a soccer match.

Mr. Bédié was elected to a full five-year term with a reported 96 percent of the vote, although the main opposition parties had boycotted the election, protesting the new rules on who was eligible to run.

Over the next few years, he sought to solidify his grip on power by extending his term to seven years and giving himself the right to appoint senators and postpone elections. In 1999, authorities issued an arrest warrant charging Ouattara with falsifying his identity papers.

Critics called Mr. Bédié a tyrant and urged him to release political prisoners, but the president remained defiant, delivering an angry speech to parliament. The next day, Christmas Eve, he was ousted in a coup, the first military uprising in the country’s modern history.

Troops fired guns in the air, looted shops and raced through Abidjan in stolen luxury cars, saying they were owed back pay and were tired of living in squalid conditions. The soldiers handed power over to Gen. Robert Guéï, a former military chief who had been forced into retirement by Mr. Bédié. The ousted president found refuge at a French military base near the Abidjan airport and fled to Togo and on to Paris, while dismissing Guéï as a “nitwit.”

The uprising was met with jubilation by many Ivorians, with residents in Abidjan taking to the streets, chanting “No more Bédié,” while the independent newspaper Notre Voie described him in print as “our tropical Adolf Hitler.”

France and the United States joined other countries in condemning the coup, although the revolt was welcomed privately by some diplomats whose governments had denounced the violent transfer of power. “If it’s a coup, it’s a good coup,” one African envoy told The Post weeks later.

Those remarks were echoed by Ouattara, the current president. “Of course we condemn any coup, because a coup is not a democratic way to come to power,” he said at the time. “But if it’s removing a dictator from power, is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

Three years later, in September 2002, Guéï was killed in fighting at the onset of the first Ivorian civil war. The conflict lasted half a decade and emerged out of the rancorous debate over Ivorian citizenship and identity that began under Mr. Bédié, with rebel troops opposing the government of Guéï’s successor, nationalist president Laurent Gbagbo.

Henri Konan Bédié was born into a family of cocoa planters in the village of Dadiékro, near Daoukro, on May 5, 1934. As president he funneled public money to his hometown, resulting in the development of new roads, a mosque, a nightclub and a hotel, costly projects that set the community apart from other small towns in central Ivory Coast.

After graduating from high school in 1954, he continued his education at the University of Poitiers in France, receiving a law degree and a doctorate in economics, according to an official biography from his political party. He married Henriette Koizan Bomo in 1957. They had four children, although information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Bédié worked in the civil service before being named Ivory Coast’s first ambassador to the United States and Canada. He later served 11 years as finance minister and was also an adviser to the World Bank, promoting private investment in Africa.

In 1980, he was elected president of Ivory Coast’s National Assembly.

The coup sent Mr. Bédié into exile for several years, although he remained active in the country’s politics and ran for president in 2010, when Ouattara defeated Gbagbo, the incumbent, who triggered a short-lived second civil war when he refused to step down. Mr. Bédié came in a distant third and finished with the same result in 2020, after calling for civil disobedience when Ouattara, the eventual victor, defied constitutional term limits and announced he was running for a third term.

At the time of his death, Mr. Bédié had not ruled out running in the country’s next election, in 2025.


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1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2023/08/02/henri-konan-bedie-dead-ivory-coast/

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