Ivory Coast: the endgame

2011-04-16 13:01

With a look of vacant despair on his crumpled face and with his shocked and dishevelled wife Simone by his side, 65-year-old Laurent Gbagbo was the picture of defeat this week when he stared into the cameras.

The game was apparently up for the hot-headed former history lecturer, political exile, socialist agitator and national president of 10 years’ ­standing.


More than four months of violent defiance against that ill-defined entity known as the international community – whose local champion Ouattara has become – had ended a couple of hours earlier.

On the morning of April 11, the Gbagbos and a handful of their closest supporters were captured alive from the basement of the ­shell-damaged presidential residence.

Roughly manhandled, with Simone’s headscarf an early casualty, they were transferred to a suite at the Golf ­Hotel, a former windsurfers’ mecca, and, officially at least, into the ­custody of Ouattara’s government.

The lagoon-side Golf Hotel, one of numerous profitable investments ­during Ivory Coast’s glory years in the 1960s and 1970s, found itself a new role as the United Nations-protected seat of government during the ­turbulent months after presidential elections on November 28 last year.

Rejecting the verdict of the UN and the almost unanimous view of foreign governments – that Ouattara had won the run-off by a percentage margin of 54-46 – Gbagbo refused to vacate the presidential palace on the Plateau and the residence in Cocody.

Despite his teacher’s calling and his masters degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, Gbagbo has a pugilist’s soul – he vowed to fight on and blamed French President Nicolas Sarkozy for the conflict.

Gbagbo had shown the same spirit in 1992 when he, Simone and their chief lieutenants in the Ivorian ­Popular Front were sentenced to ­prison for leading violent street ­demonstrations in Abidjan against ­the austerity policies of the government of the day.

The president then was Felix ­Houphouet-Boigny, the country’s ­venerable founding father, but he was losing his grip and the brilliant ­technocrat mandated to shore up the economy and keep dissenters like Gbagbo at bay was his prime minister, none other than Alassane Ouattara.

At the time, Ivorians knew little about Ouattara but Gbagbo was a very ­familiar figure. As a fiery leader of teaching unions and then from his ­exile in France in the 1980s, Gbagbo had led the opposition to Houphouet-Boigny’s pro-Western, one-party rule.

Indeed he was the first politician to be allowed to run against the old man, scoring a suspiciously low 18.3% in the country’s first multiparty ­election in 1990.

Gbagbo had nothing in common with Ouattara, three years his senior and politically his complete opposite.

With a PhD in economics from the ­University of Pennsylvania, ­Ouattara made his career and his top-level ­contacts inside the International ­Monetary Fund in Washington.

He was Africa director at the height of structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s and a protégé of the fund’s then managing director, Michel Camdessus, a highbrow French ­economist.

All the way down from his pursed lips to his gleaming banker’s brogues, via a perfectly knotted tie, Ouattara tends to radiate order and affluence.

His political constituency may be strongest among his own community, Ivory Coast’s northern Muslims, but his style is elegantly Franco-American and his wife Dominique is a French Jewess who built her own wealth in Abidjan during the golden era of ­Houphouet-Boigny’s 33-year rule.

After Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, Ouattara joined Gbagbo out in the political cold.

Henri Konan Bedié, the late president’s carefully groomed dauphin, took over as planned but he seemed unaware that Ivory Coast was in dire straits and desperately required clean, just and efficient government.

Looking back, that was arguably the period when things went irredeemably wrong in what used to be francophone Africa’s most prosperous and dynamic country.

Bedié fathered the half-baked doctrine of “Ivoirité” (Ivorianness), undermining the citizenship rights of millions of northerners and immigrants and, in many eyes, preparing the ground for today’s catastrophe.

In 1999, the army threw Bedié out in Ivory Coast’s first coup and crisis ­followed crisis.

Gbagbo was eventually declared winner of elections in 1999 but three years later a rebellion by northern soldiers ended with the country divided in two, and Gbagbo only really in charge of the southern half.

Ouattara, who has spent many years fighting claims that he is not a true Ivorian and therefore ineligible to be president, was the rebels’ purported champion.

After numerous postponements, the electoral face-off between Gbagbo and Ouattara was finally held late last year.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on organising the polls and thousands of UN peacekeepers were deployed. France, the former ­colonial power accused by Gbagbo’s supporters in particular of compulsive meddling, had its 1 000-strong Licorne (Unicorn) force backing up the UN military.

The polling mechanics went well in the first round when Bedié limped in third and was eliminated. The rest is already tragic history.

Whether Ouattara can command the factional armed forces which helped him to power, and order an immediate end to the revenge killings of his predecessor’s defeated supporters; and whether he can govern without French ­protection, are two obvious questions.

A third is whether he can ensure that Laurent and Simone Gbagbo ­remain alive to face a fair trial.

» Kotch is a journalism and media trainer, a correspondent and a consultant across Africa 

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