Gbabgo must go, say African leaders

2010-12-11 11:02

These are nerve­wracking times for the Ivory Coast, the West African country that spectacularly fell from grace a decade ago and ­buried its reputation as a haven of peace and prosperity.

At the end of a psychologically draining week, exhausted ­Ivorians had no idea if their ­ordeal was over or if presidential elections on November 28 had made a bad situation even worse.

The next few days should settle that debate, and mediators will be doing everything to prevent a resurgence of the civil war that broke out in 2002.

What is clear is that a remarkable display of unity by the international ­community proved that African and donor governments had reached the end of the road with the hot-headed and unstable rule of Laurent Gbagbo.

The global chain of command, strengthened by a fierce statement from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), instructed the former history lecturer to step aside and hand power to Alassane Ouattara, whose main constituency is among Ivorian northerners.

Almost identical messages came from the African Union (AU), the European Union, the US, former coloniser France and, crucially, after Russian resistance was overcome last Wednesday, the UN Security Council.

The IMF, World Bank and African ­Development Bank all chipped in, telling Gbagbo to move along.

Reacting to a full-blown African crisis with almost unprecedented purpose and speed, all these ­actors said the results announced by the country’s electoral commission, giving Ouattara a 54-46 percentage win over Gbagbo, were valid and must stand.

They brushed aside the subsequent ­announcement of the pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council awarding an implausible victory to the incumbent.

The UN special representative in Ivory Coast, YJ Choi, has led from the front throughout these dangerous days, boldly ­confirming Ouattara’s victory.

Explaining the show of unity, senior Ghanaian diplomat ­Mohamed Ibn Chambas said it was time African politicians proved they were in tune with the times.

“It’s a test case for West Africa, indeed for all of Africa,” the former Ecowas head told the BBC. “We need to demonstrate that we mean it when we say we have turned the page.”

Ivory Coast is well worth ­fighting for, even though most of the rapidly rising population of 21 million live in increasing ­hardship.

Oil, gas and gold have added to the country’s traditional sources of wealth from cocoa
and coffee.

Gbagbo, who came to power in messy elections in 2000, has ­refused to budge and claimed with precious little evidence that voting in the north was rigged for Ouattara by the ex-rebels of the New Forces.

A standoff has ensued with two presidents and two governments.

Ouattara (68) has the international legitimacy, but 65-year-old Gbagbo has the presidency, state TV and, until the opposite is proved, the security forces.

In the south he also has the mob.

Compared with the urbane Ouattara, he has the street­fighting instincts, and, as the elections showed, he has the ­support of many Ivorians, mainly from his strongholds in the west.

As if to underline his readiness to fight, Gbagbo appointed the notorious former leader of the Young Patriots militia, Charles Blé Goudé, as one of his ­“ministers”.

Choi has more 9 000 UN peacekeepers and police at his disposal in case the army moves against Ouattara’s headquarters in Abidjan’s Golf Hotel, dubbed the Golf Republic by Gbagbo loyalists.

The heads of UN missions are usually ordered to blink when there is a risk of armed confrontation with local forces, but Choi has shown his mettle and has French troops as back-up if things spin out of control.

To add to the complex mix, Gbagbo and his inner circle, led by his wife, Simone, will have heard loud and clear the Security Council’s pledge to impose personal sanctions “against persons who attempt to threaten the peace process”.

Despite his lack of French, former president Thabo Mbeki was the AU’s “médiateur” when the Ivorian crisis erupted in the early 2000s.

His mediation failed because of a widespread ­perception that he was pro­Gbagbo or, perhaps more ­accurately, pro-incumbent.

Mbeki was back in Abidjan last week, again as a mediator, but his impact seemed to be ­negligible when both the AU and ­Nigeria-led Ecowas condemned Gbagbo in the kind of forthright language Mbeki shuns and ­suspended Ivory Coast until the ex-president steps down.

South Africa’s first government statement on the crisis on ­December 4 was typically ­Mbekiesque, lacking any opinion or urgency but merely saying it “took note of the elections in Ivory Coast”.

There are suggestions that the still powerful business community, most of which is backing Ouattara, a former development banker and vice-president of the IMF, will stop paying taxes next week to try to force Gbagbo’s government to its knees.

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