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Ivory Coast hotel a seat of government and prison too

The Golf Hotel is an unlikely seat of government. Circled by razor wire, tanks and a U.N. force, it's home, office and prison to Alassane Ouattara, Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president.

April 01, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Tents on the grounds of Abidjan's Golf Hotel accommodate the U.N. peacekeeping troops guarding Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast's presidential election.
Tents on the grounds of Abidjan's Golf Hotel accommodate the U.N.… (Rebecca Blackwell, Associated…)

Reporting from Abidjan, Ivory Coast — 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.

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.

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.

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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