Ivory Coast names new prime minister after successor's death

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Abidjan (AFP) - Ivory Coast's defence minister, Hamed Bakayoko, was named prime minister on Thursday after acting as interim premier in the three weeks since the sudden death of his predecessor, the presidency announced.

Considered a close associate of President Alassane Ouattara and a pillar of the ruling regime, Bakayoko, 55, has had the defence portfolio since 2017, after serving as interior minister from 2011.

He has also been mayor of Abobo, one of the West African country's most populous districts, since 2018.

"The President of the Republic has signed a decree appointing Mr. Hamed Bakayoko as prime minister," while he will keep his defence role, according to the presidency's statement.

Bakayoko was appointed to serve as stand-in prime minister after Amadou Gon Coulibaly's unexpected death from a heart attack on July 8.

"His appointment comes as no surprise since he was acting prime minister and was already the government's number two," said political scientist Arthur Banga.

- 'Pivotal role' -

Bakayoko's name had circulated as a potential presidential contender before Gon Coulibaly was nominated in March as the ruling RHDP party's candidate for October's presidential election.

"He is best placed to play a pivotal role for the RHDP in the run-up to the presidential election after the death of Gon Coulibaly," said political scientist Sylvain N'Guessan.

"This nomination does, however, put him out of the running for the presidential election, in case Ouattara does not run again," N'Guessan said.

Ouattara had earlier ruled out running for a third term but after Gon Coulibaly's death it has emerged that the president could in fact stand for re-election.

If he does, it could spark accusations of abuse of democracy under the country's two-term presidential limit.

Ouattara and his supporters contend that a change to the constitution in 2015 gives him the right to seek a third term.

The president announced on Wednesday that the decision over his own candidacy would be postponed, citing an extended mourning period after the death of his "son" Gon Coulibaly.

But he assured the political council of his RHDP movement in Abidjan: "I am with you... You know that I have never disappointed you."

- 'Friendships beyond his camp' -

The October presidential election is set to be tense after years of political turbulence in the country.

One of the world's major coffee and cocoa producers, the country still carries the scars of a brief civil war that erupted nearly a decade ago.

In 2011, Ouattara ousted then-president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to step down after losing elections. The months-long standoff claimed 3,000 lives.

For October's polls, the opposition has said local branches of the electoral commission responsible for organising the election are unbalanced in favour of the ruling party, despite a reform carried out last year.

The opposition has also challenged Ouattara's right to run for a third term.

Political scientist Banga said Bakayoko could play a critical role in bridging the divide ahead of the vote.

"During the three-month period leading up to the presidential election, he will have to take up the challenge of bringing the opposition back to the negotiating table, of renewing political dialogue in order to achieve a peaceful election," Banga said.

Banga pointed to Bakayoko's long political career which has spanned decades and parties.

Bakayoko was a founder member of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) in 1994 and was in charge of the party's newspaper, Le Patriote. It is part of the RHDP coalition.

He was also minister of new information and communication technology in the national unity government from 2003 to 2011, during a decade of crisis in Ivory Coast.

"He has his entries everywhere, including in the opposition. Because of his atypical background and his long political experience, he has friendships beyond his camp," Banga said.

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