When a rag-tag group of soldiers launched a mutiny in Ivory Coast earlier this month, it looked like they were doomed. A column of elite troops quickly descended to put the mutiny down. The rebels were running out of ammunition and armouries were locked.
Then, the phone rang.
According to one mutiny leader, the caller, whose identity the mutineers declined to disclose, told them where they could find weapons: at the home of an aide to the parliament speaker.
The group initially feared a trap, but when they reached the location, they found crates of rifles, machineguns, grenade launchers and ammunition.
Freshly armed, the mutineers were able to hold their ground.
Swiftly, President Alassane Ouattara’s forces sent in to crush the mutiny and it began falling apart, according to a Special Forces officer who was part of it. The column U-turned and headed back to Abidjan and for a second time this year, mutineers brought Ouattara’s government to its knees.
The incident exposed the deep dysfunction and lawlessness jeopardising Ivory Coast’s recovery from a decade of turmoil and civil war.
The previously undisclosed phone call suggests powerful people were willing to help the mutineers. And the army, which still outgunned the rebels, was unwilling to follow orders to put the mutiny down.
“General Sekou Toure was giving orders and no one was listening,” a regional security official told Reuters, referring to the military chief of staff. “What does that tell you? There’s no control over the military.”
“KNIFE EDGE MOMENT”
Ivory Coast, known for decades as one of the most stable states in West Africa, is still recovering from a brief civil war fought after Ouattara won a disputed election in 2010 but incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.
When Ouattara’s backers supported by French troops finally arrested Gbagbo in 2011, the country emerged from the conflict swiftly becoming Africa’s fastest growing economy.
Investors duly poured in money and have so far tended to shrug off unrest — including a similar army revolt in 2014 and an al Qaeda attack on a beach resort last year.
But behind the recovery, there is still a threat of more violence. A new election is due in 2020 and those who study the country say there is a growing risk it could unravel again.
“It’s a knife-edge moment,” said Edward George, Head of Group Research at pan-African lender Ecobank. “It wouldn’t take too much more to spook investors.”
Ouattara still has difficulty asserting authority over the army, cobbled together in an uneasy merger of the northern New Forces rebels who supported him and professional troops who fought against him.
In January, 8,400 former rebels mutinied, demanding bonuses for having helped Ouattara to power. The unrest spread and a panicked government paid five million CFA francs ($8,500) to each rebel to end it.
It promised another seven million CFA francs apiece in monthly instalments — at a cost of around $100 million — but a drop in the price of cocoa provoked a budget crunch.
Since February, according to diplomatic sources, government has been seeking a way out of the promise.
This month, it seemed to have had found one. On May 11, state TV broadcast a statement by a visibly nervous, beret-clad soldier identified as the mutineers’ spokesman.
Named as Sergeant Fofana, he apologised to Ouattara, seated nearby and said the troops had dropped their remaining demands for payments.
There was only one hitch: no one had told the mutineers.
“We never spoke about dropping the demand for money,” said a mutiny leader, who asked not be identified for fear of reprisals.
The next morning, gunfire was heard in cities and towns across the country. Roads were barricaded. In Abidjan, mutineers overran the army headquarters and defence ministry.
Chief of staff Toure announced an operation to “re-establish order” and a column of elite troops was deployed to Bouake, heart of the mutiny.
“THEY WERE GOING TO KILL US”
In a roadside village south of Bouake the following day, a group of low-ranking soldiers sat down with the officers commanding the column. The officers told the soldiers Ouattara no longer wanted discussions, their mutiny had tarnished the country’s name and they must give up or face the consequences, recalled a soldier present at the meeting.
“We knew if we backed down, they were going to kill us,” the mutineer told Reuters.
It should have been easy for elite forces to put down the revolt. Diplomats said government anticipated a reaction after Fofana’s statement and locked armouries at military bases.
After the phone call led the mutineers to the secret weapons stash, the mutiny spread, shutting down cocoa ports in Abidjan and San Pedro. With the chaos worsening, government capitulated.
Authorities have not confirmed details of the agreement reached to end the uprising, but mutiny participants were soon queuing up at banks in Bouake to withdraw five million CFA francs each. The mutineers say they each expect another two million CFA francs to be paid next month.
“This isn’t just about cash. It’s also about 2020,” said Robert Besseling, executive director of risk advisory EXX Africa, referring to the election to succeed Ouattara, who is not permitted to stand for a third term. “I think over the next three years we’ll see more outbreaks of this kind of unrest.”
The mutineers all declined to name who told them about the weapons, but the home belonged to Souleymane Kamarate Kone, better known by his nom de guerre “Soul to Soul”, head of protocol for parliament speaker Guillaume Soro.
The former head of the pro-Ouattara rebellion, Soro is a contender to take over from the president but faces strong opposition from the ruling coalition.
Attempts to reach Kone for comment were unsuccessful. He is due to speak to gendarmes about the affair, according to a copy of a summons seen by Reuters.
Soro issued a statement saying he would not discuss weapons found at the home of his aide: “Such issues fall under defence secrets. You can therefore understand I won’t allow myself to comment.”
But the mutiny leaders say they were undoubtedly saved by the secret cache: “Without Soul to Soul’s weapons we couldn’t have held out if they attacked,” said one.
“We could have hidden and fought with guerrilla tactics but not for long. Yes, it saved us.”