ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — IB Coulibaly, the renegade warlord who made no secret of his presidential ambitions, said he was being targeted for assassination just two days before he died this week.
A few days earlier, during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Coulibaly exuded confidence. He did not seem like a man who would take his own life, as a commander for his rival, Defense Minister Guillaume Soro, has suggested.
Coulibaly's top aide denied late Thursday that the warlord took his own life and said he was slain in an attack Wednesday by fighters belonging to Soro, who is also Ivory Coast's prime minister. The aide, Felix Anoble, said Coulibaly was badly beaten and then shot in the heart.
Behind the mystery of Coulibaly's death lies the question: Can President Alassane Ouattara control the warlords whose fighters, grouped loosely under Soro, ousted incumbent Laurent Gbagbo this month and installed him to power? Will Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer, resume its place as an economic powerhouse of West Africa, or will it become a nation where rivalries are settled by shedding blood?
The deaths in the post-election violence number in the thousands. More than 1 million people fled their homes amid the fighting, which also shut down the economy. The crisis occurred because Gbagbo lost the November election but refused to leave office.
Coulibaly, a 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) bespectacled warrior, described plans for his future in a new Ivory Coast during the AP interview on April 17. As one of those who had helped oust Gbagbo and bring Ouattara to power, he had every expectation he would be accorded power and privilege.
There was every sign that this was a survivor.
But Coulibaly, 47, probably overplayed his hand, trusting that an old relationship with Ouattara, whom he said he looked up to as a father, would allow him to reach the pinnacles of power and bypass Soro. And he may have underestimated Soro, every bit as ambitious as he, whose camp claims that they found Coulibaly's body "lifeless but with no bullet wound" after they attacked his base in Abidjan's sprawling and poor Abobo neighborhood Wednesday night.
A photograph posted at the Web site Thursday showed a body with arms outstretched and what appeared to be a bullet wound to the chest and a bloodied face that looked like Coulibaly's. http://www.abidjan.net
When he first met the AP team, Coulibaly cut a swashbuckling figure, bearded and mustachioed, in camouflage uniform and military boots, a red beret topping it all. He wore three stars on his shoulders to denote the general's rank that he had assumed. He was unarmed but flanked by equally smartly turned out aides toting Kalashnikov rifles.
Speaking in measured tones in French, Coulibaly spoke with leaders of the Abobo community that extolled him as a savior. It was there that he had started the battle for Abidjan against Gbagbo's troops in February after they fired mortar shells and rockets at Abobo, which had voted massively for Ouattara in the election.
The community leaders must have had a sense of foreboding. After his bold actions were listed by a praise singer, one told Coulibaly: "The residents of Abobo pray for blessings for you and your brave men every night" and he then prayed: "May God protect you against all your detractors and all those who want to sully your name and undermine your good work."
In an interview afterward, Coulibaly deplored the lack of military coordination between his and Soro's pro-Ouattara forces who arrived at the gates of Abidjan in early April, saying: "If we had united, we would have been able to avoid much bloodshed – there would have been fewer lives lost, less damages and looting."
But he denied that the rivalry with Soro had caused infighting that further delayed Gbagbo's ouster, which finally happened on April 11.
Other blood feuds may emerge now that the common enemy, Gbagbo, has been neutralized.
The infighting sends danger signals to Ouattara, a technocrat who once was deputy chief of the International Monetary Fund. Ouattara had tried to distance himself from the former rebels fighting in his name but he adopted them as his own when weeks of pleas for an international military intervention to force Gbagbo from the presidency went unheeded.
However Coulibaly died, Soro – who has not responded to journalists' requests for interviews – is rid of a dire enemy and future rival in any presidential race.
Coulibaly had helped lead the 1999 coup that installed Gen. Robert Guei, who was assassinated mysteriously along with his wife after 2000 elections won by Gbagbo.
In 2002, Coulibaly tried to oust Gbagbo but failed. Later that year he launched the rebellion that divided the country between the rebel-held north and government-run south. Soro joined Coulibaly's rebellion but in 2004 the two men's combatants fought a bloody battle for leadership in Bouake, a city in Ivory Coast's center. Soro won and Coulibaly went into exile.
When Coulibaly returned from seven years in exile, he said "my heart is sore" to see the torn-apart, down-at-heel country that once was a model for progress and prosperity on the continent.
In the interview, he pledged allegiance to Ouattara's presidency and said he wanted to be part of the new army that would give Ouattara the strength to concentrate on rebuilding the broken country. He said he was in touch with Ouattara's people and was waiting for an appointment to be received to pledge his allegiance formally.
Four days later, Soro's fighters attacked Coulibaly's base, but were repulsed. The next day, Ouattara ordered Soro's troops back to their barracks in the north and west of the country, and he ordered Coulibaly to surrender his weapons or face forceful disarmament.
When the AP reached him later that Friday, Coulibaly still sounded confident, saying he was ready to disarm but that it would take time. He was just waiting to hear from Ouattara.
Saturday, amid fears his stronghold could be attacked at any time, the AP found Coulibaly in a heavily starched and beautiful chocolate brown linen robe, preparing to address worried community leaders. For the first time, he sounded less sure of himself, saying he still was ready to disarm but that he also still was waiting to be called for an audience with Ouattara.
A visit to his base Monday found it reinforced by more blue sandbags and nervous-looking duty guards who remained polite to this reporter. Coulibaly was "too occupied" to talk to the AP again. Instead, he sent Anoble, who launched into a tirade against Soro and implied that his camp had invited Coulibaly to a meeting that was "a rendezvous with death" along a road set up for an ambush.
"We get the impression that it is his very life that they want," Anoble said at the time.
Anoble also said that they waited in vain for U.N. peacekeepers to escort Coulibaly to the meeting, "But the peacekeepers called to say they had received no authorization, and a colonel said that they feared they could not guarantee IB Coulibaly's security."
Anoble made an impassioned appeal for Ouattara to meet with Coulibaly and warned the president against Soro: "Nobody trusts Soro, and the president needs to understand that. Soro is a belligerent ..."
Sunday night, Soro's defense ministry spokesman had gone on television to deliver Soro's order for fighters loyal to Coulibaly to desert him immediately and join the new army.
That was the last public warning.
Three days later, Coulibaly was dead.