Ivory Coast set to swear in Gbagbo despite poll row

Abidjan – Ivory Coast’s incumbent Laurent Gbagbo is due to be sworn in as president today after his victory was rejected by world leaders but accepted by the army, raising fears of a potentially violent power struggle.

The top cocoa grower’s election commission said opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won a November 28 poll with 54.1% but the highest legal authority, citing alleged intimidation and vote-rigging, scrapped hundreds of thousands of votes yesterday to hand the victory to Gbagbo.

World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, the head of the United Nations and West African regional body ECOWAS all rejected Gbagbo’s win and said Ouattara was the winner of a poll meant to heal wounds after a decade of division.

Ouattara’s party has warned denying him victory would risk throwing the country back into conflict and won the backing of former rebels still controlling the north.

But Gbagbo’s camp has rejected outside pressure, threatening to throw the UN’s top envoy out of the country and, according to state television, he will be sworn in at noon.

Amid heightened tensions and reports from residents of gunfire as night fell in some neighbourhoods of Abidjan, the head of Ivory Coast’s armed forces pledged allegiance to Gbagbo.

“We came to greet the president of the republic, to give him our respect, reiterate our readiness and allegiance and tell him that we are ready to carry out any mission that he wants to give us,” General Philippe Mangou said on state television after being shown visiting Gbagbo with other senior officers.

The hotly contested run-off was due to cap the protracted process of reunifying a country that was once West Africa’s brightest economic prospect but has been split in two since rebels seized the north after a failed coup attempt in 2002.

After a relatively peaceful first round, the lead-up to the run-off reignited divisions, with Ouattara winning most of the north but Gbagbo saying provisional results were marred by rebel-led intimidation of his supporters in the north.

The rebels deny the charge and Ouattara says the international backing shows he is the rightful president.

At least 15 people have been killed in election-related violence in the last 10 days but there are fears of more street protests in Abidjan while rebel forces in the north said they were on high alert should government forces attack them.

“I don’t know what to think any more,” a resident in Adjame told Reuters by telephone from the Abidjan neighbourhood.

“We just don’t know who is president.

The U.N. said it was Ouattara. (State television) said it is Gbagbo. We don’t know where this will end,” the resident said, asking not to be named.

Test of resolve

Donors, led by the UN, which was charged by a 2007 peace deal with certifying election results, have spent as much as $400 million on the election process.

Election observers confirmed that violence marred voting in parts of the country but said overall the vote was fair.

In what diplomats said was an unusually strong endorsement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Ouattara on winning the election and called on Gbagbo to cooperate in the transition.

Bolstering the response against Gbagbo, regional body ECOWAS, led by economic powerhouse Nigeria, supported Ouattara’s victory.

But diplomats in New York said Russia had blocked the UN Security Council from also doing so.

The lack of Security Council consensus on the UN’s position could encourage Gbagbo to ignore international pressure, making Saturday’s swearing-in ceremony a first test of foreign resolve in challenging Gbagbo, who has been in power un-elected for the last five years.

Gbagbo long has enjoyed a position as an arch nationalist, so will be undaunted by foreign criticism and is likely to paint Ouattara as a foreign stooge.

But diplomats say the UN could impose sanctions while a region increasingly attracting investors will be keen to quickly end instability.

Tensions over the election results had led to cocoa prices spiking and the yield of the country’s $2.3 billion Eurobond, a bellwether of recovery hopes, rising.

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