Life goes on in world's smallest republic

The exuberant chatter that followed election night has all but disappeared.

Today a handful of loyalists wearing white campaign T-shirts slump in chairs. Two French gendarmes in navy blue polo shirts stand near the bookshop, exchanging greetings in hushed tones.

Outside, the garden resembles a military campsite with tents, camp beds and white United Nations military trucks.
Peacekeepers are on constant alert amid threats that an armed mob will storm the building. Their mission—to protect an anxious government-in-waiting.

Welcome to the Golf in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, currently the most surreal hotel in the world. Would-be guests who attempt to sample its five-star luxuries are likely to be threatened at gunpoint. Current residents might be reminded of a lyric from The Eagles’ Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

This is the improbable headquarters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of November’s presidential election.

Normally the 300-room hotel is used by business people and the occasional tourist, and for wedding parties and company meetings. Now it is in the eye of a storm that could sweep Côte d’Ivoire into another civil war.

It was in a conference room here that Ouattara’s victory was announced by the chairman of the electoral commission, Youssouf Bakayoko, after he had been prevented from announcing the results on state television.

A jubilant crowd sang the national anthem in the lobby as scores of well-wishers poured into the parking lot. But the joy turned sour when incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat and, according to Ouattara and the UN, unleashed a wave of terror that has left more than 200 people dead.

Gbagbo also effectively turned the Golf hotel into a prison, surrounding it with his security forces so that Ouattara cannot leave and food supplies have to be airlifted in by UN helicopter.

Finding a way
Many among the 200-plus hotel staff still go home at night, negotiating a way past the military. But none of the senior opposition figures will consider leaving—not even if the roadblocks are lifted. “I don’t feel safe at home as long as Gbagbo remains in power,” said an opposition spokesperson.

Ouattara holds Cabinet meetings in an air-conditioned tent on a football field adjacent to the hotel. He has also been giving interviews and hosting press conferences with journalists flown in by UN helicopters.

This week, a day after Gbagbo promised to lift the blockade around the Golf, the road to the waterfront hotel was still blocked by a tree trunk, a wooden signboard and four armed soldiers, including one with a machine gun at the hip and an ammunition belt around his neck.

“We can’t let you go through,” they said. “Those are the instructions we’ve been given.” The Guardian went in by car in a small convoy of two UN buses and a UN jeep. After about 30 minutes the military waved it through.

Ouattara, looking tired, spoke to the press from the conference room of the hotel. He was announced as: “His Excellency Alassane Ouattara, the president of the republic.”

The military roadblock was symbolic of Gbagbo’s empty promises, Ouattara said. He called Gbagbo “a liar” who “has no credibility. He announced he was going to lift the blockade. Well, here is someone who is always ready to make promises he won’t keep.”

Ouattara and his wife occupy a luxury suite at the hotel. Some senior officials exercise by taking brisk walks around the compound every morning.
As dusk sets in, soldiers get together for a game of football or basketball.

The hotel takes its name from the golf club across the road, a lush and meticulously maintained course that was created by the country’s first president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who tried to promote golf as a popular sport.

Water and electricity are still working at the Golf, though no one can be sure if Gbagbo will cut them off. For now the waiting game goes on, with hopes among residents of what feels like the world’s smallest republic pinned on international pressure.—Guardian News & Media 2011

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