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World & Nation

Ivory Coast hotel a seat of government and prison too

A sweaty afternoon torpor falls on the vast hotel lobby, as if someone had pumped a mist of sleeping gas through the air conditioning. Men slump beneath garish lime jungle murals, mouths hanging open.

Outside, a cooling breeze blows off the lagoon, drifting over palm trees, thatched gazebos, tennis courts (unused), a pool complex with extravagant fountains and sprays (none working). A large black lizard with a bright orange head does push-ups.

The waiter at the lobby cafe stares slack-jawed at a stack of dirty dishes and plates, and is rarely seen waiting. Tables, that is. The other kind of waiting he’s very good at.

In a country drifting toward all-out war, the Golf Hotel is the world’s most unlikely seat of government. Surrounded by curls of razor wire, tanks and United Nations peacekeeping soldiers, it’s the home, office and effective prison of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the November presidential election in Ivory Coast.

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He’s pretty much been marooned in the hotel since December, when Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president who refuses to cede power, ordered his troops to surround it. Then a U.N. force arrived on the scene to protect Ouattara from Gbagbo.

It would be farcical if it weren’t so murderously dangerous.

While bodies pile up outside in a dirty little war between supporters of the two presidents, and forces loyal to Ouattara make gains across large swaths of the country, the only way to get to the hotel is a twice-daily flight in a shuddering jalopy of a helicopter.

With its lurid 1970s orange, yellow and red basket-weave chairs and bright yellow or lime or purple or pink walls, the Golf Hotel seems to have been caught in a spider web of time.

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In the lobby cafe, flies adhere stickily to the crumb-peppered marble tables. The glass-shelved cake fridge holds no cakes, only half a dozen empty juice bottles, a twist of foil, a screwed-up paper napkin, a bag of greasy leftovers and a toothpick.

As time sags this afternoon, a shriek echoes and grows. A wild-eyed young man in a bright yellow shirt storms into the lobby from a nearby corridor, teeth bared, screaming. The lobby blinks awake, freezes.

The man half runs, half staggers, cutting an angry arc, head swiveling, voice like breaking glass, mouth an angry O. Then as suddenly as he appeared, he’s gone.

The wakened sleepers are on their feet, gathering in a small flotilla in a sea of marble, yachts that survived a storm. No one seems sure what to do.

*

The president in the Golf Hotel is issuing decrees he can’t carry out, the other in the presidential palace is decreeing no-fly zones he can’t enforce. One had world opinion on his side, the other, the army.

The one-upmanship is escalating. Both have appointed Cabinets and they address the nation on TV stations they control, threatening and lecturing each other.

In a country that is the world’s largest cocoa exporter, Mr. Golf Hotel president banned cocoa exports, denying tax revenue to the Gbagbo regime, only to see Mr. Presidential Palace president nationalize the industry overnight in a bid to regain control of cocoa revenue.

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Although stuck in the Golf, Ouattara has control of the country’s finances, because the central bank of the eight-nation West African currency union revoked Gbagbo’s authority to sign state checks. Lacking the cash to pay the army or civil servants, Gbagbo seized four international banks and their reserves. Unconfirmed rumors flew that Gbagbo had ordered billions of West African francs to be printed in Argentina.

The Ouattara camp is hoping that West African governments will send in troops to force Gbagbo from office; if not, forces loyal to Ouattara say they’ll do the job themselves.

While the big men maneuver, their supporters hunt one another like rats and send out cellphone videos of their atrocities.

*

Every hotel has its grand dame, and the Golf’s is Augustine Essoubo. A member of Ouattara’s protocol office, Essoubo has gathered an island of chairs and tables in the marble sea. She calls it the bloc of ministers.

She sits there most hours of most days, an Ouattara campaign badge on either breast, a pile of newspapers in front of her and a mountain of bulging shopping bags stuffed with goodies that she has delivered. There’s a fleet of glasses on the table, a pot of coffee and a plastic box of melting ice cubes.

She calls herself Maman Essoubo. Grown men approach her with sheepish smiles, like boys looking for a treat.

“Hello, Maman Essoubo,” they wheedle. “Have you got a Kiri?” She reaches deep into one of her Mary Poppins bags and pulls out a half-empty box of Kiri cream cheese cubes. She catches an eye and digs out a lollypop. Someone else gets a croissant. She lends newspapers, complains about the poor cellphone network that day, vacuums up gossip and passes it on.

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“I give out presents. It makes me happy. And everyone likes it. I always have candies and cookies and chocolates. It’s good for morale,” she says in a voice as soft as marshmallow.

“Life here is pleasant. We live just as if we were one big family. We’ve all become brothers and sisters. I know everyone by face, although I don’t know all their names.”

Maman Essoubo’s cheery manner sags almost imperceptibly when it comes to the subject of sharing a room. Yes, she would like a bit of privacy. But she pastes her smile back on.

At least she feels safe from Gbagbo’s militias here.

“Security here is guaranteed. But if I went home, then I’d be afraid. Gbagbo could kill me. I’m very active politically and Gbagbo knows it.”

Her self-appointed job is to keep everyone else chirpy. When the ministers emerge from a Cabinet meeting, she waves cheerily at Ouattara. When someone is low, she reaches for a treat.

A few feet away, in his own bubble, an advisor to the government (the Ouattara one) listens to music on his computer while working. When the young man comes shrieking into the lobby, the advisor doesn’t give chase or get to his feet. He stares for a few moments, then goes back to work.

After three months, he’s fed up. (And he doesn’t even have to share a room.)

“We go round and round,” he says, sighing. “It’s boring. It’s difficult to work in a hotel with no offices. There’s nothing you can do about it. You don’t have freedom. You can’t go out. It’s always the same thing.”

Along the long dark corridors, there are glimpses of life unfolding through the cracks of unclosed doors. Near the elevators, security men in camouflage pants and T-shirts sit wearily, staring blankly ahead.

Some inmates are more enterprising. One “guest” has a schoolbook full of telephone numbers and amounts, running to dozens of closely written pages. The guest has a contact outside who buys cellphone credit and transfers it to people in the hotel, for a commission.

“It’s a secret,” says the guest, who doesn’t want to be named. “If Gbagbo knew that someone outside was sending us phone credit, they would kill him.”

The hotel car park is full of stranded black Mercedeses and SUVs. The swimming pool is surrounded by white military tents, where U.N. soldiers are camped, protecting Ouattara’s government. Soldiers stretch out on mattresses for an afternoon nap. Washed camouflage trousers flap in the trees. Crushed cigarette packets and water bottles litter the ground like fallen fruit. A crow pecks at a scrap of food.

In the mornings, the helicopter brings boxes of vegetables, pineapples, walnut-size red chilies and flowers. A large bouquet of red roses, interspersed with sparkly red balls that look like poisonous berries, is beginning to sag.

According to Maman Essoubo, the trucks bringing food to the hotel are sometimes blocked by a scary group of Gbagbo loyalists called the Young Patriots.

But food has never run short. At lunchtime, waiters in white shirts emerge from the restaurant, fanning out, with trays balanced on one palm, at shoulder height. With a dramatic flourish that seems lost on the vacant waiter in the lobby cafe, they bear plates of meat and caramel-colored fried plantain.

There’s an air of relieved anticipation: something to break up the day.

*

For some, life in the Golf Hotel becomes too much. Recently, three young men decided to go home.

The next afternoon, someone phones the young man with the yellow shirt. His brother is one of the men who left.

He takes the call and life seems to end. His brother and two friends have been killed by Gbagbo’s people.

The screams begin. As the young man disappears, still shouting, Maman Essoubo hurries after him. Fifteen minutes later she returns, looking concerned. He is in no condition to accept her comfort.

Next day, she goes searching for him. No one knows where he has gone.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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