Eyes wide shut

In 1982, when I was a student in Abidjan, I went on strike for Laurent Gbagbo. ­President Felix Houphouet-Boigny – Ivory Coast’s first president, who ruled for more than 30 years – had forbidden Gbagbo, then a democracy activist and history professor, from holding a conference.

The government detained about 100 ­demonstrators at a military base, where we spent two days without any food. We did not regret it; we had pinned our hopes for democracy on ­Laurent Gbagbo.

But look at Gbagbo now: soundly defeated at the polls last November after a decade as ­president, he refused to concede, plunging Ivory Coast into chaos.

Those who protested were tortured and killed; his soldiers fired on gatherings of women and shelled a market, killing dozens.

It’s only now, ­after United Nations and French troops have ­intervened and he has been besieged in his home, that he might be prompted to give up his hold on power.

How did the man who was once seen as the ­father of Ivorian democracy turn to tyranny? Was it the corruption of power?

The intoxication of going from having nothing to everything all at once?

Only a year before he was elected president, in 1999, I remember him denouncing Slobodan ­Milosevic, saying: “What does Milosevic think he can do with the whole world against him?

When everyone in the village sees a white loincloth, if you are the only person to see it as black, then you are the one who has a problem.”

But in the space of 10 years he became deluded by power; a leader whose only ambitions were to build palaces and drive luxury cars.

After the November election, Gbagbo and his wife, Simone, refused to accept the results, in part because they had become evangelical Christians and their pastors convinced them that God alone could remove them from power.

Every day on state TV, fanatical clergymen called Gbagbo God’s representative on earth, and the winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara, the devil’s. Many young Ivorians – poor, illiterate and easily brainwashed – believed this.

More prosaically, Gbagbo and his cronies – guilty, among other crimes, of stealing from the public coffer – fear being brought to justice before an international tribunal;

so much so that they have decided to hold on to power, no matter the cost. The fear of losing everything can make a ­dictator, even one who once was a champion of democracy, lose his mind.

The hopes we had in 1982 are long gone now.

I was one of many people who denounced ­Gbagbo’s brazen attack on democracy, and on ­January 10 his militiamen burst into my old house in Abidjan looking for me. I went into hiding after that, and friends helped me flee Ivory Coast to Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, and then France.

I am much luckier than those who have been killed, wounded or raped; those who are languishing in Liberian refugee camps or living without water and electricity.

My friend, Oumou, tells me that her neighbours are burying their dead in their buildings’ courtyards.

If they go to the cemetery with the bodies of ­relatives who have been shot in the fighting, they are considered to be rebels and executed.
The same is true for people who seek medical treatment for bullet wounds.

The international community was right to ­intervene.

To allow Gbagbo to remain in power despite the wishes of the electorate is to give up on the democratic process in sub-Saharan Africa, at the same time as North Africa and the Arab countries are overthrowing authoritarian ­regimes.

We in sub-Saharan Africa began that process 20 or 30 years ago, when Gbagbo and I were younger men. From Bamako, Mali, to ­Kinshasa, DRC, students and the dispossessed poured into the streets to topple our dictators.

But in Ivory Coast we failed; Houphouet-Boigny stayed in power until his death, just as Omar Bongo did in Gabon and Gnassingbe ­Eyadema in ­Togo, while Paul Biya is closing in on 30 years in Cameroon.

The seed of democracy had been sown in ­Africa, but it grew more slowly in some countries than in others. I believe it will grow again in Ivory Coast, but only once Gbagbo has gone.

I saw him on TV last December when, despite the protests, he was inaugurated for another term at the presidential palace. Simone Gbagbo wore a white dress, as if she were a bride. At the end of the swearing-in she conspicuously kissed her husband, and the small crowd applauded.

The president and his wife were well-matched in delusion: the whole country knows that Mrs Gbagbo lost her husband’s favour once he became ­president, and he has since taken a second wife – younger and, it is said, more beautiful.

The kiss, like the ceremony, fooled no one.

When I heard that international forces were bombarding Gbagbo’s bases, that was the image that came to me: Laurent, wearing the medals and sash of the office which he refused to give up, and Simone in her wedding dress – the two entwined forever in their tragedy, which is also that of their country.

» Konan is a journalist and novelist. This essay was translated from French.

©?The New York Times Syndicate

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