Africa, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

COTE D’IVOIRE: A Call for Solidarity in Resolving Fate of Missing Reporter

Michael Deibert

PARIS, Dec 14 2007 (IPS) - Early one afternoon nearly four years ago, journalist Guy-André Kieffer was thrust into a waiting car by several armed men in a supermarket parking lot in Abidjan. He has not been seen since.

Following the reporter’s disappearance in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital in April 2004, however, a tangled and murky picture has emerged of the forces in the country which Kieffer had been covering, forces that apparently had good reason to want to silence the troublesome gadfly.

Born in France, Kieffer obtained dual French-Canadian citizenship during a marriage to a Canadian. He spent the better part of two decades as a journalist for the French business publication ‘La Tribune’ before starting to report from Africa on a freelance basis for a variety of publications. These included the French-published ‘La Lettre du Continent’ (Letter From the Continent).

Despite the gradual, often deceptive cooling down of the civil wars that tore West Africa asunder during the early part of the decade, Kieffer – 54 at the time of his disappearance – still found plenty of corruption, nepotism and violence to write about while working in the region. These problems were notably evident in Côte d’Ivoire.

Once viewed as West Africa’s success story, Côte d’Ivoire’s economy flourished under the authoritarian rule of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who governed the country after its independence from France in 1960 until his death in 1993. By 1999, though, following the country’s first-ever military coup, Côte d’Ivoire’s political fortunes began to decline along with the prices for its main exports, cocoa and coffee.

A disputed election in 2000 brought Laurent Gbagbo, a former university professor, into the presidency, and with him the rhetoric of Ivoirité, viewed by critics as a means by which to turn immigrants from neighbouring countries (mostly concentrated in Côte d’Ivoire’s west and north) into scapegoats for the country’s economic downtown.

Tension between the Gbagbo government and its opponents finally erupted into insurrection in late 2002, with the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces, FN – an umbrella organisation comprising three different rebel groups) taking up arms against the government and plunging the country into civil war.

Though most large-scale fighting had stopped by 2004, and though a power-sharing agreement now sees FN Secretary General Guillaume Soro sitting in the prime minister’s office, the country remains split between rebel- and government-controlled zones. In addition, the inner workings of the country’s economic system – and the massive profits still being made from cocoa – remain, in the words of Ivorian opposition politician Alassane Ouattara, characterised “not by lack of transparency, but by total obscurity.” (See: ‘ECONOMY: The Bitter Taste of Cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire’ and ‘Q&A: “We Don’t Believe Gbagbo Will Organise Transparent Elections”‘).

It was into this tableau of violence and shadowy economic interests that Kieffer entered.

He proved expert at ruffling the feathers of the country’s political elite, with his final story for ‘La Lettre du Continent’ detailing alleged kickbacks that Ivorian officials had taken from a bank account belonging to Guinea-Bissau’s former dictator, Ansumane Mane, who was killed in fighting there in 2000.

Kieffer had also been hard at work exploring the operations of Côte d’Ivoire’s Banque nationale d’investissement (BNI), where some of the revenues from the country’s major cocoa institutions are held.

The bank’s director, Victor Jérôme Nembéléssini-Silué, is a former cocoa executive who is also the chairman of Lev-Ci, a company which includes on its board Moshe Rothschild: an Israeli arms dealer wanted in Peru on corruption charges. Before United Nations Security Council Resolution 1572 imposed an arms embargo against Côte d’Ivoire’s warring factions in November 2004, Rothschild negotiated the delivery of military helicopters to government forces. The sole shareholder of BNI is the Gbagbo government.

On the day of his disappearance, Kieffer had a meeting with Michel Legré, the brother-in-law of Côte d’Ivoire’s first lady, Simone Gbagbo. Kieffer’s personal computer was later found at Legré’s home, and Kieffer’s car was found abandoned at the Abidjan airport.

Following his disappearance two French judges, Patrick Ramaël and Emmanuelle Ducos, were put in charge of investigating the case, with the former visiting Abidjan several times. While there was an initial promise of co-operation from the Gbagbo government, those involved in the case say they subsequently ran into a wall of silence when trying to interview the principle actors.

“The Ivorian justice system is not very keen in advancing any aspect of the case,” says Léonard Vincent, head of the Africa section for the Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders, RSF). Along with Kieffer’s family, RSF is acting as a plaintiff in the case. “There has been no help or hint of help given by the presidency; they are very hostile.”

A former Gbagbo confidant, Jean-Tony Oulaï, was arrested in France and in January 2006 charged with kidnapping Kieffer, but later released on parole pending trial. After violating the terms of his parole by failing to report regularly to French police, he was re-arrested again in late October and currently remains in a French prison.

To say that Oulaï himself is a curious figure is something of an understatement. A former commercial pilot arrested in Florida in 2001 following the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks, Oulaï was subsequently cleared of any involvement in terrorist activity, but deported from the United States for overstaying his visa and lying to Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel. Airport officials testified that they had found flight manuals, commercially produced videos relating to the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, and a stun gun in Oulaï’s baggage – as well as documents on his laptop that pointed to Oulaï’s being involved in some sort of intelligence gathering activity in the United States.

Following his expulsion from the United States, Oulaï returned to Côte d’Ivoire, from where Gbagbo had pressed U.S. authorities on his behalf while he was imprisoned.

In an interview with the France 3 television network this past August, an Ivorian national named Berte Seydou claimed to have been the driver for a death squad that had kidnapped Kieffer and subsequently killed him, the coup de grace apparently administered with a machine gun at a clandestine location reserved for executions of government opponents. Seydou further alleged that Oulaï was in charge of the unit that conducted the assassination.

“Jean-Tony Oulaï was the middle man, the facilitator,” Osange Silou-Kieffer, Kieffer’s second wife, told IPS during an interview in Paris. “It’s not possible that he was the intellectual author of this action.”

Up until now, Oulaï has denied any involvement in Kieffer’s disappearance.

In Abidjan, meanwhile, after spending less than a year in jail – charged with the abduction, kidnapping and murder of Kieffer – Michel Legré was freed on bail in October 2005. A request that he be handed over to French judicial authorities for questioning in France has been ignored. Ostensibly under house arrest as he awaits trial, Legré continues to move about the country and travel internationally, undertaking a trip to Angola recently.

Other persons of interest in the case, including Gbagbo’s special advisor for security and military affairs, Kadet Bertin, and a man described as the president’s spiritual advisor, pastor Moïse Kore, have yet to be questioned by the investigating magistrates.

The strong personal animosity between former French president Jacques Chirac and Gbagbo marked the early years on the investigation, with Chirac also refusing to meet members of Kieffer’s family.

However, the family was received in August by France’s current head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy, who vowed to press for resolution of the case.

“Whenever other journalists were in difficulty in the past, Guy-André always demonstrated on their behalf,” says Osange Silou-Kieffer. “I am just looking to get the same solidarity for him.”

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