ABIDJAN, February 12- As members of Ivory Coast’s football team became national heroes with their dramatic Africa Cup of Nations victory, President Alassane Ouattara has moved to turn their popularity into a political scoring opportunity of his own.
Since the Elephants won Ivory Coast’s first Africa Cup of Nations championship in 23 years Sunday in a 9-8 penalty shootout win over Ghana, Ouattara has seemingly been everywhere — orchestrating the resulting explosion of collective joy, and pumping some of that popular elation into his own looming re-election bid.
Opposition politicians complain that the Ivorian leader often referred to as ADO (for Alassane Dramane Ouattara) has brazenly appropriated the country’s collective footballing triumph for his own political interests.
And they say he began that effort almost as soon as the second goalkeeper Boubacar Barry knocked the winning goal into the net.
After rushing to hail the victory on images broadcast from his presidential palace Sunday night, Ouattara promptly decreed Monday a national paid holiday so fans could welcome the team home.
He personally greeted Elephant stars at the airport and headed the motorcade driving them around commercial capital Abidjan.
He then officiated at the ceremony honouring the squad in jam-packed Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium, where fans clad in orange Elephant jerseys waved celebratory placards.
Some several hundred of the placards even bore the message “The Ivory Coast is rising, thank you ADO.”
– Footballing glory –
For some the personalisation of a national triumph has been too much.
“The president is engaging in inappropriate political advertising,” complained Franck Bamba, national secretary of the principal Ivorian Popular Front opposition party, which will challenge Ouattara’s re-election bid in next October’s presidential election.
“This is certainly linked to the fact that it’s an election year, but despite that this is entirely abnormal.”
Few world heads of state or other leaders, however, ever shy away from associating themselves with sporting victories.
And with an estimated one million of Abidjan’s population of 4.3 million people flooding onto the streets to celebrate on Monday, it was the sort of mass outpouring of pride that can prove irresistible for leaders hoping for re-election.
“That political exploitation is natural, because everyone can see what football represents for Ivorians,” said political analyst Yves Ouya, adding that the benefits of that manipulation will be both short-lived — and not without risk of backfiring.
For example, while hosting the 23 Elephant players at the presidential palace Tuesday, Ouattara awarded each a bonus of 90,000 euros ($100,000) — a questionable gift to highly-paid pro athletes from a country whose poverty rate was described as “worrisome” by the World Bank in a November report.
And while Ouattara has repeatedly hammered home reminders of how the Elephants’ victory offers a lesson of “unity and discipline” to a nation that was ravaged by a decade of conflict and civil war, Ouya said the president must avoid angering and mobilising foes with the impression he has hijacked the country’s footballing title for his own purposes.
“You need to be careful that this kind of exploitation doesn’t provoke the opposing side,” Ouya warned.