"Terrorist." "Foreigner." "Vampire." Alassane Dramane Ouattara has been a magnet for some scathing insults over the past 20 years in Ivory Coast, the West African country of which he has just become president after a four-month conflict with his rival, Laurent Gbagbo. Despite the animosity against him, stoked for years by successive regimes, Ouattara won last November's presidential election fair and square. But taking power wasn't so easy. Gbagbo, the incumbent, refused to step down, claiming he had actually been the victor. It took an all-out military assault on the commercial capital Abidjan -- aided by French and U.N. troops -- to get Gbagbo out. Even then, the outgoing president refused to concede defeat, leaving Ouattara to try to govern and reconcile a country where only just over half the people voted for him.
Ivory Coast is in bad shape. Civil servants are owed weeks of salaries, banks have been ransacked, and migrants, vital to the country's economy, have fled in droves. With his record as a technocrat and economic reformer, the new president has the skills and background to nurture the country back to health. But whether he has the political chops is another question altogether. Ouattara's enemies are still seething over the violence committed by his armed supporters and over his backing from France, the much-hated former colonial master. A polarizing figure, Ouattara's biggest obstacle in the coming months may be himself.
How did Ouattara, a soft-spoken man who was once among the top officials at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), come to be such a divisive figure? The short answer is that rival politicians have long feared Ouattara's popularity, and for years they have done all in their power to counter it with rumors, accusations, and often outright lies -- all part of an effort to ensure he would not assume the presidency. Writing in her memoirs, for example, Gbagbo's wife Simone said of Ouattara, "I arrived at the conviction that this man was dangerous, without scruples, without faith or law.... Alassane Ouattara turned out to be a real scourge for our country."
Ouattara arrived on the political scene in April 1990, when Ivory Coast's founding father and president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, appointed him as economic czar. Houphouët had already been in power for three decades, running a dictatorship that was mostly benevolent. But during his rule, Ivory Coast behaved as if it were banking on a never-ending economic boom, borrowing lavishly from France, the IMF, and the World Bank to invest in infrastructure and private enterprises. Thanks to a successful agricultural sector, notably including the world's largest cocoa harvest, Ivory Coast's economy grew by 7.5 percent a year on average from 1960 to 1980, putting it among the 15 fastest-growing economies in the world. By the end of this period, however, cocoa prices were falling and the so-called Ivorian miracle began to peter out. In May 1987, the country suspended repayment of its $13.5 billion foreign debt. Houphouët was facing the deepest crisis of his rule.
In dire need of economic help, Houphouët saw Ouattara, then the governor of the Central Bank of West African States, as just the man for the job. Without dropping his post as Central Bank governor, Ouattara, then 48 and a father of two by his American ex-wife, leapt at the chance to enter government.
Installed in his top-floor, air-conditioned office in an ultra-modern skyscraper, Ouattara drew up a set of reforms. The measures, which became known as "the Ouattara plan," were a gentler version of the reforms that had been pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. He ruled out wage cuts after a wave of protests in the preceding months. Instead, Ouattara sought to make savings by making the rich pay their taxes and ending widespread customs fraud. He told civil servants to follow his example by turning up for work at 7:30 a.m. and foregoing the usual three-hour lunch break, taking instead just one hour. He aimed to cut state spending by a quarter, boost tax collection by a third, and erase a $768 million budget deficit. His strategy was successful in macroeconomic terms. But it divided Ivorians, earning him many domestic enemies even as he was being lauded abroad.