Ivory Coast prosecutors on Monday issued an arrest warrant for presidential candidate Guillaume Soro who aborted a planned return by diverting his flight to Ghana as security forces stormed his party headquarters in Abidjan.
The former rebel chief’s scheduled return to the Ivory Coast after a six month absence to be a candidate in next year’s ballot has raised tensions in the West African country whose 2010-2011 election ended in deadly violence between rival supporters.
State prosecutor Richard Adou told public television that an arrest warrant had been issued for an “attempt against the state authority” and intelligence services had evidence that showed the “plan was to be carried out soon”.
He said Soro, a former national assembly president, was also under investigation for embezzlement of public funds and money laundering for amounts up to 1.5 billion CFA francs (Sh255 million)
Fifteen of his supporters, including Alain Lobognon, Soro’s right-hand man, were also detained on Monday, but on different charges, the prosecutor said.
Lobognon, a spokesman for Soro’s Generations and People in Solidarity (GPS) party, had earlier told reporters at its headquarters that the candidate’s plane had been diverted “against his will” to Ghanian capital Accra preventing him from returning to “take part in the electoral process”.
Security forces stormed the GPS headquarters shortly after the statement. Security personnel were present at the airport as well, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
A source close to the Ivory Coast presidency said Soro had asked the plane to land in Ghana to avoid “arrest upon arrival” in Abidjan.
Around “800 men” including riot police were deployed along the route from the airport to Soro’s home to “prevent any gathering” by supporters, according to a note by Abidjan police officials that was sent to AFP.
The GPS headquarters, in a private home next to the US embassy in Abidjan, was surrounded by armed men who pushed their way inside and forced the occupants to leave.
Police also fired tear gas, and members of the media and party loyalists were driven from the area.
The developments came just after French President Emmanuel Macron paid a weekend visit to Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara to discuss Sahel security and visit French troops in Abidjan.
Soro is a former ally of Ouattara, but the two have since had a falling out, reportedly over Soro’s own presidential ambitions.
Political analysts say Soro is popular in particular among young Ivorians, but there are no independent opinion polls to estimate his support nationwide.
The 2020 presidential election scheduled for October looks set to take place in tense conditions.
Violence in 2010-2011 that followed a previous election caused 3,000 deaths, and local elections last year were also marred by fraud and fighting.
Soro, a Christian from the north of the country, headed rebels fighting against then president Laurent Gbagbo in the country’s civil war in 2002.
The revolt cut the former French colony into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south, triggering years of unrest.
Gbagbo was later ousted after refusing to concede defeat to his arch-rival Ouattara in the 2010 election.
Soro’s support was crucial to Ouattara, whom he then served as prime minister in 2011-2012.
Soro had already held that position since 2007 and was also president of the national parliament from 2012-2019.