When he enters the Ebimpé stadium on Saturday January 13 to attend the opening of the 34th African Cup of Nations (CAN), will Alassane Ouattara finally have the feeling of a job well done? Ten years after obtaining its organization and as many years of work which transformed his country, this continental football event has a major political stake for the Ivorian president. The bar is high: this CAN must be “the most beautiful in history”, he kept proclaiming.

“Olympic Games, World Cup, African Cup of Nations… Why are all the states on the planet fighting to obtain these events? Because it is an opportunity to show the world what their country has become,” underlines Ivorian government spokesperson Amadou Coulibaly. This month of competition must be the showcase of the twelve years in power of Alassane Ouattara, who arrived at the head of state in 2011 after a deadly electoral crisis, and who, at 82, has still not said whether he would run for a fourth term in 2025.

No less than 60,000 seats in the stands, Ivorian and international stars – Magic System, Yemi Alade, Mohamed Ramadan, Dadju, Tay C – responsible for hosting the opening ceremony, matches broadcast in 155 countries, 5,000 accredited journalists , 1.5 million visitors expected: on paper, this CAN is unprecedented for the country. The opening match which will pit the Ivorian selection against the Bissau-Guineans must be a celebration. As long as there are no hiccups.

“Rain or not, the lawn will hold! »

In the Alassane Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé, the largest in the competition, the Ivorian president will undoubtedly have his eyes as much on the sky as on the pitch. While it rained in Abidjan on Friday, the expected weather on Saturday evening became one of the subjects that concerns the government. “Rain or not, the lawn will hold! », swears one of its members.

In September, a heavy downpour during a preparation match against Mali sparked the biggest controversy in recent months. A few minutes of bad weather were enough to flood the pitch and the stands, causing the match to be interrupted, the discontent of the supporters and the black anger of the Ivorian president. “He was furious,” says a minister. The supposedly model venue gave rise to suspicions of mismanagement of funds intended for the CAN.

A fiasco such that it ended up costing the Minister of Sports Claude Paulin Danho his place, but also Prime Minister Patrick Achi, both of whom arrived in mid-October. The latter, who was also accused of not knowing how to decide and of having too great political ambitions, was replaced by Robert Beugré Mambé, who held the post of governor of Abidjan, at the head of the government. As a last-minute firefighter, he was entrusted with an almost unique mission: to finish the major CAN projects in just three months. The vice-president, Tiémoko Meyliet Koné, was responsible for monitoring most of the other files.

“A prime minister appointed above all to organize a sporting competition is extremely rare,” underlines political science professor Francis Akindès. The nomination of this Ebrié, the ethnic group from Abidjan, surprised the entire political microcosm. However, Robert Beugré Mambé had already been urgently called, by a phone call in the middle of the council of ministers, by Alassane Ouattara in 2016 to organize the Francophonie Games the following year, when the work had fallen behind schedule.

“We don’t eat bridges”

A Methodist preacher who has never displayed great political ambition, this public works engineer who made a career in the major Ivorian ministries has a profile like Alassane Ouattara likes. Build, build, transform the country. Beyond the sporting event, the Ivorian president wants to seize the opportunity to make his political doctrine a model.

Like Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the father of Ivorian independence, of which he was prime minister, Alassane Ouattara has continued to launch major projects since coming to power in 2011, at the head of a country then damaged by a decade of political crisis. A third, fourth and now fifth bridge spans the lagoon in the economic capital, an exhibition center has been created and a highway now links Abidjan to Bouaké, the country’s second city… The former senior manager of the Central Bank of States of West Africa and then the International Monetary Fund is convinced that it is through investment in major projects that development is achieved.

Even if it means attracting criticism from its opponents, who, even if they recognize that Abidjan has changed, emphasize that we “do not eat bridges”, that neighborhoods have been “evicted” to achieve the new infrastructure, and that outside Abidjan, Ivorians benefit little from economic development. In 2022, the country was 159th out of 191, according to the Human Development Index, and according to the World Bank, in 2019, 39.5% of the population lived below the poverty line.

“Large projects directly benefit the populations,” defends government spokesperson Amadou Coulibaly. “Since there is a highway to Bouaké, transporters have lowered the price of the Abidjan-Korhogo (north) journey from 10,000 CFA francs to 8,000 CFA francs [from 15 euros to 12 euros] without any didn’t ask them anything. Only because they save time and damage their vehicle less with the new bitumen,” retorts Amadou Coulibaly.

“The business climate is good”

Besides Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, Bouaké, Korhogo, San Pedro will host CAN matches, cities which have never welcomed so many visitors. In total, Ivory Coast spent $1.5 billion preparing for the event, according to official figures, and hopes to benefit in the short and long term. “Among the supporters there are also businessmen, entrepreneurs. This competition is both a political and economic showcase, during which everyone will be able to see that the business climate is good,” explains Amadou Coulibaly.

A strategy divergent from that of its neighbors. In a few years, Ivory Coast has lost several of its allies in a region which has fractured into two rival camps. Within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mr. Ouattara has shown himself to be among the most intransigent in the face of the putschists currently in power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and continues to choose a radically different path. “They wanted to divorce France, drive out their soldiers, their diplomats? Some appeal to Russia? It’s their choice. For us, France is a historic and strategic partner, we have no problem with it and, as for other partners, we are welcoming”, assumes an advisor to the Ivorian president, married to a French woman, Dominique Ouattara, friend of Nicolas Sarkozy and regular interlocutor of Emmanuel Macron.

The presence of some 900 soldiers of the French Forces in Ivory Coast has never been called into question by Abidjan. Cooperation within the International Counterterrorism Academy, inaugurated in 2021, is touted as a successful model by a country that has successfully contained the terrorist threat in recent years. Since the Grand-Bassam attack in 2016 and the series of attacks on the border with Burkina Faso in 2020 and 2021, the country has not experienced a notable incident, while jihadist groups are gaining ground in Mali , in Burkina Faso and Niger.

“This CAN is an opportunity to establish our leadership in West Africa, and even across the entire continent,” summarizes the government spokesperson, who concludes: “The jackpot would be the victory of the Elephants”, the Ivorian selection. Nothing like it to achieve record popularity less than two years before the presidential election, a competition that the ruling party does not intend to lose.