Amadou Gon Coulibaly, undoubtedly Alassane Dramane Ouattara’s most loyal lieutenant, became Prime Minister of Ivory Coast four months ago, at a socially difficult time and as the country is preoccupied with the 2020 election.
AGC is the man who can truly claim him as a friend and speak in his name. He is the second-in-charge, the Richelieu or the Mazarin of a long political adventure. Amadou Gon is wholeheartedly, unstintingly President Ouattara’s right-hand man. As the president himself says, “You couldn’t even slip a leaf of cigarette paper between us”. The son of a prominent Korhogo family, Amadou Gon has been in Ouattara’s corner since 1990, standing by his side during the creation of the RDR and the long road to the presidency. He was the first term’s watchdog and gatekeeper, the President’s almighty chief of staff and Minister of State, a man in the shadows who nevertheless wields influence and the power to persuade. All that changed on 10 january 2017, when he became Prime minister—an exposed, political, front-line position.
His main concern is to succeed so that the President succeeds. Of course, nothing is easy. Urgent files are piling up on his desk and the opposition is sharpening its knives. preoccupied by the 2020 agenda, abidjan’s political gossips see the 58-year-old as President Ouattara’s handpicked successor. AGC remains cautious, reserved, political and above all tries to fulfil his mission. And journalists try to understand him better.
Here is an attempted portrait (facilitated by an interview in Paris on the way to Washington) of an activist, multifaceted public servant whose career has followed the twists and turns of Ivorian history, who believes in destiny and surely has something to say.
IN THE BEGINNING
Amadou Gon was born into a political family with close ties to its land, country and roots that can trace its heritage almost as far back as the foundation of Korhogo. His great-grandfather was a supreme leader of the Senufo people. Born in Abidjan on 10 February 1959, he is the eldest son of Gon Coulibaly, a PDCI deputy from 1959 to 1990. Despite this illustrious background, the young Amadou Gon had no plans to enter politics. Gon senior brought his children up them in contact with the reality of the country and especially the “village”.
The family regularly holidayed in Korhogo. Many round trips, memories and sensations far from noisy Abidjan remain embedded in the young man’s psyche. It was always an astonishing journey, which they often started by train. Amadou Gon’s maternal grandfather, Coulibaly Dramane, was a railroad worker, which means the family enjoyed free tickets and other advantages. They would take the train to Ferké before continuing by road, a journey that took a whole day. Korhogo remains Amadou Gon’s anchor and the centre of his various worlds. He never left the city, sometimes to the dismay of other members of his sprawling, politically turbulent family. He has been the mayor since 2001. He still has plenty of free time, using it to meet notables, listen to requests, settle disagreements, etc. Those who are not friends or allies sometimes say he is still a clannish, “narrow-minded Senufo” shackled by the North’s rurality, feels more comfortable in his regional circle, mistrusts “outsiders” and has no friends. These inaccurate caricatures cut the new PM to the quick. “Just because one is attached to one’s traditions, roots and village it doesn’t mean one can’t be open to others and the world,” he says, his tone of voice rising.
In 1977, Amadou Gon earned his baccalaureate and left for Paris to study at the Lycée Jean-Baptiste-Say. He dreamed of becoming an architect or engineer in order to literally and figuratively build up his young, independent country. Tchere Seka Théodore, a friend from Agboville, with whom he took the baccalaureate, travelled with him and enrolled in the Lycée Lakanal. After graduating from Jean-Baptiste-Say, Amadou Gon entered the École des travaux publics civil engineering school. He worked hard but also enjoyed life and going out with his friends. He liked reggae and the Steel Pulse band and even tried singing himself. He was a huge fan of icon Bob Marley and saw him in concert.
Otherwise, his student life in Paris was uneventful—even though his family was jolted by the political tremors rocking Côte d’Ivoire. In 1980, the all-powerful Philippe Yacé, the head of the National Assembly and constitutionally next in line for the presidency, fell from grace. Those close to him, like Amadou Gon’s father, the Assembly vice-president, were swept up in the turmoil. Times were tough, and he still remembers.
In 1983, the young graduate joined Côte d’Ivoire’s elite Department of Public Works. He was assigned to the engineering works division headed by Philippe Serey-Eiffel, who had first come to Côte d’Ivoire as a national service volunteer. Amadou Gon dreamed of building his country’s bridges and motorways, climbing the ladder of success and possibly becoming head of the Department of Public Works himself one day.
But the ambitious engineer’s life suddenly took a different turn. In the early 1980s, Côte d’Ivoire, the model of a triumphant Africa embodied by the lavish Hotel Ivoire and its skating rink, went into recession. Oil, coffee and cocoa prices plummeted, the debt and interest rates skyrocketed and political unrest spread. Côte d’Ivoire was in danger. In 1989, its ageing founder and president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, asked a political outsider to tidy things up and save what needed to be.
He chose Alassane Dramane Ouattara, an American-educated banker, senior civil servant and president of the BCEAO. ADO moved into a house next to the presidential palace, remaining Prime Minister until Guillaume Soro and Amadou Gon. He quickly set about taking control of the situation. He asked the Department of Public Works to be attached to the Prime Minister’s office and summoned the new Director General, Serey-Eiffel, and his deputy, Amadou Gon. In the waiting room, they met future Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan. The Public Works team joined the interministerial committees chaired by ADO, in particular the one on privatisation. Amadou Gon spoke regularly at the meetings.
July 2000, the time of activism: the RDR prepares for the October presidential election. AGC meets Ally Coulibaly (left), Henriette Diabaté and Coulibaly Sangafowa (right). ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP
At the October 1990 PDCI-RDA congress in Yamoussoukro, ADO spoke with him one-to-one. He liked the young man’s qualities and drive. Amadou Gon left Public Works to join his cabinet as technical advisor—the start of a close relationship that has endured 27 years. Amadou Gon cannot recall a single serious disagreement during all that time. They understand one another, agree on all the issues and share the same managerial culture. There is obviously something more to their relationship than politics.
First of all, ADO admired young managers, especially from the North, who succeeded because of their talent and, in a way, their modernity. But there is also something more intimate, almost filial. When Amadou Gon started working for ADO in July 1990, he was grieving over his father’s death. The Ouattaras of Kong and Coulibalys of Korhogo are close. ADO’s older brother, Gaoussou, a traditional chief and descendant of Sékou Ouattara, was a friend of Amadou Gon’s father. His eldest daughter was married into the Coulibaly family court in Korhogo. The families are allies. In a gesture dictated by tradition as well as genuine fondness, ADO took Amadou Gon under his wing like a symbolic adopted son. That explains the strength of their bond. For AGC, things were clear now. His destiny was to serve ADO, a conviction that has never been shaken.
In 1993, FHB, the father of the nation, died, marking the start of a long succession crisis. Henry Konan Bédié came to power. ADO temporarily left, starting a political career surrounded by close friends. Amadou Gon returned to Public Works, where he again met Tidjane Thiam (future minister and now CEO of Crédit Suisse). The brilliant Djéni Kobina created the RDR as a current of the PDCI, an open movement welcoming people with different sensibilities. But for those close to President Konan Bedié, it is above all a war machine benefitting Ouattara. Political infighting over FHB’s succession after his death left deep wounds. The concept of ivoirité became established in political life. Reacting to their political marginalisation, the managers from the North closed ranks, causing a scission that marked the end of an epoch.
Djéni Kobina died suddenly on 19 October 1998. Amadou Gon was a founder of the RDR. Party officials gradually discovered another man, a natural-born politician. The quiet, low-key, restrained senior civil servant found his true self. He gave fiery speeches at rallies, harangued crowds, relished fights and took risks. In November 1995, he boldly defeated a cousin of his father’s in a race for the MP seat from Korhogo. AGC gradually imposed his authority on his region and the party. In the Assembly, he made his voice heard and sharply criticised President HKB’s regime. Activists called him the “Lion”. He became a key opposition figure.
In October 1999, Amadou Gon, Henriette Dagri Diabaté and several other party members were accused of violence during a demonstration, arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. Everybody was released two months later after a coup by General Robert Gueï. This was his baptism of fire. But he does not recall it as a particularly trying experience. “I wasn’t alone,” he recalls. “We were a close-knit group. Our families could come see us. And when we were feeling down, we’d turn to Mrs. Diabaté, who never complained. That gave us strength.”
Did the episode hurt his relationship with President Bedié? “Those were the circumstances, the combat of the moment,” he says. “Times have changed, fortunately. President Bedié has shown he can bring people together. Now we have a common project—the reunification Houphouet-Boigny’s followers in the RHDP.” The sequence following the 1999 coup is sadly known: the chaotic Gueï interim, Laurent Gbagbo’s election, rebellion, division, civil war, Kléber, Linas-Marcoussis and a broad-based government leading to elections.
Amadou Gon never left ADO’s side during all those years. He joined the government as Agriculture Minister and had plenty of leeway, since the president was not particularly interested in managing the country. But he was also involved in politics, pushing “Laurent” and his allies to hold elections. Relations between him and Gbagbo were minimal. There was no bonding or backslapping. The president did not try to win over or corrupt a man he knew to be loyal to his main competitor. From 2002 to 2008, they saw each other alone perhaps once or twice.
A MATTER OF THE HEART
In 2011, Gbagbo lost the vote to Alassane Ouattara, who finally reached the end of his quest for the presidency. But the election was a fiasco and a post-electoral crisis ensued. The defeated president refused to step aside. The famous, tragic Golf Hotel episode followed. Amadou Gon was one of the forced residents. It was a decisive event for him and the others. The outcome could have been dramatic, but the president-elect remained calm, reassuring, encouraging, self-confident and kept up his supporters’ spirits. Amadou Gon was particularly impressed. People who barely knew each other were forced to spend weeks locked up together. They shared meals, ideas and even some fun times. The episode brought the team and the PM’s inner circle closer together.
The moment was even more particular for Amadou Gon. He was ill. He knew it. He felt tired and out of breath. In late 2004, he went to Paris for his routine check-up. Doctors detected a heart problem. Additional tests over the months and years confirmed it was serious and would not improve. In January 2012, an exhausted AGC accompanied President Ouattara on an official visit to Paris as Minister of State. He was at the end of his tether. At the end of the trip, he saw his doctors, who told him that the only solution was a heart transplant. The sole person he told was Ouattara, not even his family or close friends. Amadou Gon considered all the options but did not give up.
The president gave him unflinching support. “You know,” he told him, “I’m going to tackle this problem. I’m going to take care of it and we’ll find a solution.” Amadou Gon breathed a huge sigh of relief. In March, he went to Paris. Professor Pascal Leprince, head of heart surgery at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, took him in hand. Amadou Gon was put on the list of urgent transplant requests. In June, a compatible donor was identified. On the night of 11 to 12 June 2012, Amadou Gon entered the operating room. His wife, Assetou Diallo, was at his side. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’ll be back. Believe me. But if anything happens, you can trust my big brother Alassane.” In Abidjan, President Ouattara informed Amadou Gon’s mother about the operation.
Amadou Gon is surprisingly nonchalant about his adventure between life and death. At most, he admits that it made him more serene, and that he relativises things better. He has taken a step back and feels more at peace. Above all, he no longer feels handicapped. He can walk without running out of breath. He has come back to life. Regular, closely-spaced check-ups reveal that everything is all right. He can fully discharge his duties of Secretary General and Minister of State, which is certainly a relief. The first floor of the palace is a veritable control tower. He laughs off the rumours of his impending death every time he goes to Paris for a check-up.
Amadou Gon takes life as it comes, without asking himself questions. He is not worried about his heart. He acts. He has imposed his image of “number two” and in Côte d’Ivoire’s collective imagination, on the political stage, gradually his status as heir. He is at the forefront. In public opinion, he is the deus ex machina. Amadou Gon puts that into perspective, too. He recognises his influence and ability to inspire people, but also stresses that the president has his system and other people he trusts, other figures who hold positions that embody institution, especially Prime Minister Duncan. ADO, AGC and DKD meet each other very often. Amadou Gon and Duncan coordinate and speak to one another.
In October 2015, President Ouattara won re-election by a landslide. A year later, there was a referendum and a new Constitution. A different institutional architecture was set up to achieve the President’s goal of balancing powers and distributing them based on political and regional sensibilities. The faithful Duncan became Vice-President and Amadou Gon Prime Minister in charge of implementing ADO’s plan during this stage of his term.
AGC took office in particularly difficult circumstances, including military uprisings, falling cocoa prices, an agrobusiness scandal, discontent civil servants and budget cuts. He measured the difference and the change of scale. His influence on the President decreased somewhat, which was not disagreeable. But Prime Ministers have effective responsibility.
They are on the “front line”, especially in tumultuous times. There is no protection or umbrella. There is no down time. One goes from the shadows into the light. One takes the blows. Media pressure must also be managed. Amadou Gon enjoys talking to crowds, making speeches and campaigning, but feels much less at ease with journalists, jokingly noting that now he has no choice. It is essential. He must communicate, explain the government’s actions and cross swords with his many adversaries and opponents—a drastic change from the muffled corridors of the presidential palace.
The PM must take all sorts of decisions. Amadou Gon usually knows what he wants, but also listens. When the issue is important or interests him, the look in his eye changes and he stares at his interlocutor. He also needs to feel trust. His caution and natural reserve can work against him, be misunderstood or interpreted as coldness, if not a form of scorn. Contrary to popular belief, he does not see himself as an insider, placing his men here and there and conducting operations against X, Y or Z. He often describes himself as “institutional”, someone who relies on structures, the party, the administration and the senior civil service.
He tries to respect people’s different positions, like those of RDR leader Amadou Soumahoro. There are just people he knows better than others, friends or those to whom he feels close, such as the entrepreneur Adama Bictogo. There are also the “little brothers” who grew up in the struggle, with whom he shares a past, complicity and history, like the minister Hamed Bakayoko, with whom he may have disagreements, but never anything personal. And then there is his team, especially the men he trusts most: his chief of staff Philippe Serey-Eiffel, who has been in on all of ADO’s adventures since the beginning, and his friend Tchere Seka Théodore—co-workers from the President’s office who followed him when he became Prime Minister. He also relies on the precious backing of Emmanuel Ahoutou, his deputy chief of staff under Duncan, who perfectly knows the house and its ways.
His busy days are packed with cabinet meetings, interministerial committees, councils of ministers, audiences and protocol formalities. Back home in the early evening, he sees friends and notables, manages affairs in Korhogo and settles disputes, which the head of the powerful Gon Coulibaly family is also asked to do. A little later, he reads all the messages, texts and e-mails he receives, even if he does not systematically reply to all of them. He goes to bed late and rises early. Every morning, he runs on a treadmill to keep in shape. The PM does not go out on the town much. Seldom seen in restaurants and public places, his favourite ways to relax are staying home on the weekends, sleeping (relatively) late, sport and reading magazines. He also keeps up with the lives of his five children. The eldest is 30, the youngest 14.
When asked about his record, Amadou Gon remains quiet a moment. The crisis years, 1999-2011, weigh heavily on history and on the shoulders of his generation. Much has changed since then, but he seems keenly aware of what remains to be done. His dislikes the word reconciliation, a now “hackneyed” or “politicised” term brandished by one and all depending on their interests. He prefers togetherness—rallying around principles, whatever the ambitions and contradictions in politics. He wants the national community to share a common base, hence the importance of the RHDP, which brings together Houphouet-Boigny’s divided followers. He believes in the merger of the RDR and PDCI, defending it to sceptics. “It’s hard, it’s complicated, but that’s no reason to give up,” he says. “We need this ‘reunification’ to ensure that we have the broadest common base possible.” That is essential. Afterwards, mechanisms must be set up to settle disagreements and reconcile conflicting ambitions, which is only possible by creating a wide platform where everyone is welcome. The seeds of division cannot be allowed to sprout in the name of power.
In his surprising political path, this child of a great family associated with the PDCI, son of the often-marginalised North, activist and founder of the RDR, the “Lion”, is now in power and aiming to promote broad-based unity. Some think that all of that is mostly cosmetic, and that number two’s long-term goal is to become number one. Others encourage him to become more independent and get out from under the President’s shadow. But AGC remains true to himself. “I am Alassane Ouattara’s Prime Minister first,” he says. “The term is over in 2020. We must make the most of these years for the welfare of all. Struggle and loyalty to a man have made this team close. It must remain so in order to ensure the President’s success. Dissension is not acceptable. We’ll see about the rest later. In any case, I never calculate. That’s in neither my upbringing nor my nature. My life has been the product of events and circumstances. That is true destiny, more than big decisions. It would certainly have been very different had I not met Alassane Ouattara in 1990. So I do what I must do and fully embrace the tasks that lie before me.”