Abidjan, Ivory Coast – On March 8, Ibrahima Sory Coulibaly celebrated Hamed Bakayoko’s birthday surrounded by friends in Abidjan’s Abobo neighbourhood.
They prayed for the quick recovery of Ivory Coast’s prime minister, who was receiving medical treatment abroad, before enjoying plates of rice and grilled chicken.
On March 10, as news emerged of Bakayoko’s death from cancer in Germany two days after his 56th birthday, Coulibaly took to Facebook and simply wrote: “God is great.”
“I had no words for someone who was always there for people, and especially for the youth in one of Abidjan’s roughest neighbourhoods,” the 31-year-old taxi driver in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital said on Thursday.
“He was the kind of guy that could get out of his car and immediately strike up a conversation with the women selling vegetables by the roadside,” added Coulibaly, now grieving.
‘New political battle’
Bakayoko was appointed prime minister in July last year after his predecessor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died of a heart attack. Gon Coulibaly was slated to be the governing party’s candidate for the October 31, 2020, presidential election, but his sudden death led incumbent President Alassane Ouattara to run and win a controversial third term arguing a 2016 constitutional amendment reset the clock on the two-term limit.
Now, it is the death of Bakayoko – seen as a frontrunner to succeed Ouattara – that leaves a void in Ivory Coast’s political scene and raises the stakes in the succession battle.
“It’s a big blow for Ouattara,” said Sylvain N’Guessan, political analyst and director of the Abidjan Strategy Institute, adding that the president, who has lost two potential successors within eight months, will now struggle to find his replacement.
“Granted it’s four years until the next presidential election, Bakayoko’s death still disrupts Ouattara’s plans.”
Without a clear successor, political manoeuvering within the governing RDHP party will become more intense in the next few years as “party power brokers” hope to succeed Ouattara in the 2025 presidential election, Tochi Eni-Kalu, an Africa analyst with United States-based Eurasia Group said in an emailed note.
Selay Kouassi, an Abidjan-based political reporter, said Bakayoko’s death “will open a new political battle”.
“It changes the stakes,” he added.
A former journalist and head of NRJ Group’s Abidjan-based Radio Nostalgie, Bakayoko served as a mediator between Ivory Coast’s warring factions since the early 2000s.
In 2011, after a civil war that killed an estimated 3,000 people, Ouattara appointed Bakayoko as interior minister. He was given the defence portfolio in 2017 following a series of mutinies, with the aim of mediating between the government and the disgruntled soldiers.
Bakayoko “was a key actor on the political scene. He was important for dialogue and for reconciliation”, said Issiaka Sangare, spokesman for the opposition Ivorian Popular Front.
In December last year, Bakayoko returned to the negotiating table with opposition parties that had boycotted the October presidential polls.
Henri Konan Bedie’s Democratic Party of Ivory Coast and Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front fielded candidates in parliamentary elections.
The talks were expected to resume after the March 6 vote, but without Bakayoko the dialogue between the political factions could stall, analysts said.
“Part of Bakayoko’s appeal was his ability to go across ethnic and religious lines,” Kouassi said. “Even if you disagreed, he would always listen.”
‘Thank you, papa’
In Abidjan, he was also known for his love of nightlife and coupe-decale, Ivorian dance style music.
“He was close to the artists and the Ivorian music scene,” said Oumar Toure, a street vendor in Abobo.
Ivorian rap artist Nash, the painter Obou Gbais and Congolese singer Fally Ipupa joined Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Niger’s outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou in expressing their condolences.
“Thank you, papa,” Gbais wrote on Instagram.
A cabinet reshuffle is expected in the coming days or weeks to fill the prime minister’s vacancy and possibly replace ministers who lost their parliamentary seats in last week’s polls.
Ouattara will likely pick Patrick Achi, secretary-general of the presidency, to succeed Bakayoko.
Achi, who served as the interim prime minister after Bakayoko was evacuated to France for hospitalisation on February 18, has built a close working relationship with Ouattara, which should facilitate a smooth transition, Eni-Kalu said.
It is not clear whether Achi will also replace Bakayoko as Ouattara’s likely successor.
Bakayoko won the parliamentary seat in the gold- and diamond-rich Seguela district with 90 percent of the vote, without even campaigning in person.