Certain circles in Cameroon have still not moved past the election crisis – the 2010 crisis thousands of miles away in Cote d’Ivoire, that is, which ended in the ouster in April 2011 of the country's President Laurent Gbagbo.
Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, the president of Cote d’Ivoire National Assembly, received a less than warm welcome during a controversial official visit to Cameroon marked by unprecedented protest against his presence there. Soro is a long-time opponent of Gbagbo, who is currently being detained at International Criminal Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity. He sided with current French-backed President Allasane Ouattara in those contested elections four years ago.
Fighting between forces loyal to Gbagbo and forces loyal to Ouattara eventually broke out, leading to months of civil war until French and United Nations troops intervened and helped Ouattara's forces capture Gbagbo in April 2011. A few thousand people were killed and human rights violations committed on both sides.
Gbagbo has a huge following within Pan-Africanist and leftist circles in Cameroon, and pro-Gbabgo hardliners in Cameroon consider Ouattara a usurper and French puppet. Cameroonians were actively involved in the Ivorian crisis, with many political parties in the country literally taking up the cause for Gbagbo, whom they claimed had won the disputed vote and therefore was the legitimate leader.
These hardliners were resolutely against Soro's visit to Cameroon. They accused him a being a warlord – a reference to the 2010-2011 conflict as well as his leadership of a rebellion in the north of Cote d’Ivoire in 2002.
Leading the anti-Soro charge was Cameroon’s leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), which has longstanding ties to Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI). In a statement issued on the eve of Soro’s arrival in Cameroon, the SDF described Soro as:
Un chef de guerre qui a plongé la Côte d’Ivoire dans la guerre civile, causant la mort des milliers de personnes.
A warlord who plunged Ivory Coast into civil war, causing the deaths of thousands of people.
The SDF also called on its members of parliament and those from other political parties to boycott Soro’s speech at the country's National Assembly.
In another statement, the SDF Chairman, John Fru Ndi, insisted that he had nothing to learn from Soro, whom he described as someone who did not respect the verdict of the ballot box. Joseph Banadzem, the president of the SDF parliamentary group, went a step further, labeling Soro a rebel who was persona non grata in Cameroon.
True to their word, the 18 SDF members of parliament walked out of the National Assembly when Soro addressed the legislative body on June 11, 2014.
Soro and critics push back
Although the SDF stance was hailed in pro-Gbagbo circles both in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire, there were many observers who criticized the SDF’s actions. Particularly significant was a statement from Nfor Susungi, a former adviser to the SDF chairman and author of the SDF’s economic platform for the 1997 parliamentary and presidential elections. In it, he said:
To characterize Soro Guillaume as a “Chief Rebel” is a mistake. He is now the President of the National Assembly and an integral part of constituted authority in the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire. This does not call on anyone to like him or to love him. It calls on everyone to acknowledge and to respect the office because Cote d’Ivoire is a nation that is above Soro Guillaume, Alassane Ouattara, Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo or any other person who might, at one time or another, be called upon by political circumstances to occupy any of the constitutional offices of the land… the SDF decision has put them in a corner and they have emerged gaining nothing out of their approach in handling this event. In fact they are the big losers.
Soro took it upon himself to personally address his detractors, beginning with his speech at the national assembly. “Yes, I am a rebel just like Paul-Martin Samba and Edandé Mbita who rebelled against German colonialism here in Cameroon!,” he said. “I am a rebel against any western, Asian, American or African policy which normalizes injustice, discrimination, and the disregard and daily exploitation of man by man.”
An active social media user, Soro tweeted a picture of a cross section of the audience during his speech:
Regardez bien au-dessus. Un record m'a dit un diplomate habitué des lieux. La fronde des députés SDF n'ya rien changé pic.twitter.com/YLlYZMWs4B
— Guillaume K. Soro (@SOROKGUILLAUME) June 13, 2014
Take a good look [at the audience]. A diplomat familiar with the national assembly told me this was a record. The SDF’s revolt did not change a thing.
Soro used his Facebook page for an even more direct attack:
[…] Après de vaines tentatives d'intimidations, ils ont essayé de négocier mon silence. Allant jusqu'à plaider que je renonce à lire mon discours. Dommage je ne mange pas de ce pain là. Seule solution : fuir la salle!
Eh oui, fuir leur propre hémicycle! Là où ils avaient juré m'interdire l'accès! Et j'ai parlé dans l'hémicycle sans changer un iota de mon discours.
[…] After useless attempts at intimidation, they tried to negotiate my silence. Going as far as asking me not to read my speech. But I didn't want any part it. Their only option? To flee the hall!
Yes, to run away from their assembly room! Where they had sworn to deny me access! And I spoke in the assembly room without changing a single word in my speech.
A high-profile meeting
A couple of days later, Cameroonian President Paul Biya granted Soro an audience after newspaper reports alleged that the president had refused to meet with him. Soro did not let go this opportunity to take on his detractors which he did in a series of mocking tweets.
Regardez bien cette photo! Bien plus intime! Les jaloux vont maigrir pic.twitter.com/V8lfpHIlMk
— Guillaume K. Soro (@SOROKGUILLAUME) June 13, 2014
Take a good look at this photo. Much more intimate! The jealous will be disheartened.
This dejected reaction of an anonymous commentator on news website Cameroon-Info.net fittingly captured the general mood of those who were against Soro’s visit to Cameroon:
Je ressent dans ma profondeur une tristesse en réalisant que Paul Biya a accorder une audience à ce SORO que nous connaissons comme bras de la France dans sa politique de domination de l'Afrique.
I am deeply saddened by the audience that Paul Biya granted to this SORO fellow whom we know to be a tool of French domination in Africa.
If the purpose of Soro’s visit was to force Cameroonian authorities to publicly take sides in the Ivorian conflict, then it was certainly a resounding success, as a newsducamer analysis explains:
Le président de l’Assemblée nationale ivoirienne a mené une opération séduction au Cameroun. Et les autorités locales lui ont donné la tribune qui lui manquait depuis la chute de Laurent Gbagbo en avril 2011. Reçu par le président de la République, par le président du Sénat et par le président de l’Assemblée nationale, l’ancien premier ministre ivoirien peut justifier l’impression qu’il a d’une visite réussie.
The President of the Ivorian National Assembly was on a charm offensive in Cameroon. And Cameroonian authorities gave him the platform which he lacked since the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in April 2011. The former Ivorian Prime Minister can claim that he had a successful visit to Cameroon after being received by the Head of State, the President of the Senate and the President of the National Assembly.