Le President, C’est Moi

Ivory Coast's president is making a desperate stand to keep his job -- but will his move just mean more misery for a country that's already seen enough?


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—At a campaign event in October, I watched the incumbent president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, dance as if he didn’t have a care in the world. We were in the newly refurbished Congress hall of the Hotel Ivoire, filled to the brim with Gbagbo supporters. As the theme to his campaign started playing on the loudspeakers and the audience clapped, the president sauntered down the aisle. Eyes wide open, he shook his hips and cut the air at chest height with his hands in time to the music. The audience sang along to the refrain: "Devant, c’est mais" — "Ahead of us, it’s maize," or in other words: "The opposition isn’t much to worry about."

Recently, however, Laurent Gbagbo has had plenty to worry about. Despite his upbeat campaign, Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 presidential election — the first genuinely open ballot held in the country’s independent history — by Ivory Coast’s U.N.-backed independent electoral commission. Instead of packing up his office, however, he resolved to stay. His allies in the country’s Constitutional Council nullified millions of votes from the north, where his rival is the favorite, declaring Gbagbo the winner. He took the oath of office, named a cabinet, and began issuing official statements as if nothing had happened.

Unfortunately for Gbagbo, he’s not the only one claiming the presidency — Alassane Ouattara, the opposition candidate who actually won the election, has done the same, setting up an office in a hotel in Abidjan and also swearing in a new government. Both sides are armed — Ouattara is supported by the leftover rebels from Ivory Coast’s recent civil war and a U.N. peacekeeping force of 9,000, while Gbagbo is backed by the army. The United Nations says 50 people have already been killed in post-election violence, victims of armed gangs who have besieged opposition districts during the overnight curfew. And many fear things will get worse before they get better.

With most of the world backing his rival, Gbagbo is under increasing pressure to resign. Unfortunately, it’s exactly this kind of pressure that Gbagbo — a self-styled man of the people — is least likely to respond to. His caricature in the popular Ivorian weekly comic, Gbich!, features him with long sideburns and a towel draped around his neck to mop up sweat as if he were a boxer — a style he often adopted during the long years he spent as an opposition politician pounding the streets under a hot tropical sun.

During those years, he was one of the only opposition leaders to challenge Ivory Coast’s long-standing President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who died in 1993, leaving the country destabilized and open to a long period of disputed power and civil war, even after Gbagbo finally took office officially in 2000. Through the north-south conflict that followed from 2002 and 2007, it was to Gbagbo’s credit that the state remained mostly intact. Civil servants never missed a pay check, the country remained the world’s largest cocoa exporter, and sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest port, Abidjan, remained functional and even expanded. Luckily for Gbagbo, the key riches were in the southern tropical zone, which the government had a stronger hold over: cocoa, coffee, rubber, and some oil. But even those in the north — the rebel zone — enjoyed virtually uninterrupted electricity and water supplies.

Although Gbagbo held the state together during the civil-war years and helped engineer the eventual reconciliation in 2007, promising that elections would be held imminently, he didn’t escape the process unscathed. Ivoirians now view the decade of Gbagbo’s rule as their most disastrous since independence. When he was elected in 2000, Gbagbo was handed a five-year mandate — but it grew longer each year as elections were delayed over and over again. His rule became a symbol of the tired, dogged conflict that simply wouldn’t let Ivory Coast free.

Going into the 2010 elections, facing Ouattara — an expat technocrat, former prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny, and an IMF deputy managing director — Gbagbo knew his candidacy was a tough sell. So he focused on driving home two messages to the crowds. The first was to blame the lack of progress on the war — and in turn to blame the war on Ouattara, who comes from the north and shares a support base with the rebels. The second strategy was to reframe the past decade as a battle for real independence from France, the former colonial power — a tactic that played well to the continuing Ivoirian sense of inferiority and resentment toward the country’s former colonial overlords. After all, France still controls large parts of the economy, including the port, railways, electric grid, water system, and airport.

But as results from the second runoff started coming in on Nov. 28, the confidence of Gbagbo’s campaign slogans — like "Rien en face" ("We’re up against nothing") — began to look misplaced. Ouattara formed an alliance with former President Henri Konan Bédié, whose support base comes from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Baoule. As areas that had voted for Bedie in the first round turned to Ouattara in large numbers in the second round of the runoff, it was clear the alliance would hold — Ouattara was going to win. And Gbagbo, the man who’d fought under the cry "We win or we win," started to consider another option.

Fortunately for him, he still had a card up his sleeve. A year earlier, Gbagbo had appointed a close political ally to be head of the Constitutional Council, which still has the final say on election results. Paul Yao N’Dre accepted complaints from Gbagbo’s camp that the vote in the north (Ouattara’s base) had been disrupted by ballot stuffing and electoral violence. He disqualified more than half a million votes in areas that voted massively for Ouattara in the first round — and Gbagbo stayed put.

The international community has made its displeasure known since the beginning of the standoff. Ivory Coast has been kicked out of the African Union until it has just one (not two) presidents. Gbagbo and his family face sanctions and travel bans from the European Union — not something that’s likely to bother Gbagbo, who has barely been back to the old continent since a coup attempt in 2002 caught him unawares in Italy — and the United Nations resolved on Dec. 20 to keep its peacekeepers there, protecting Ouattara’s camp.

And so this former history teacher turned populist opposition leader turned president is fast gaining a reputation as the African Hugo Chávez: involved in a bitter struggle with the "international community" and drumming up support with sermons on the evil imperialists. In his first televised address to the nation since the election, on Dec. 21, he claimed that he is the true president and accused "the international community" of "[declaring] war on the Ivory Coast."

In Francophone Africa, such talk isn’t so easily written off as ridiculous — but the real conspiracy may be different from the purported one. In October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-hand man, Claude Gueant, paid a visit to Ivory Coast, declaring that France was not backing any one candidate in the elections. Privately, however, diplomats whispered that France preferred a Gbagbo victory in the long-delayed elections as the best guarantee of stability for French business interests, which have hardly suffered despite the anti-colonial rhetoric.

Where the standoff goes from here is still anyone’s guess. One of Gbagbo’s nicknames here is "the baker," because he "rolls everyone into flour" — an expression meaning that he finds a way to come out on top in any situation. In this case, it remains to be seen whether Gbagbo will live up to his reputation or if the rebel groups and peacekeepers will propel Ouattara into the presidency — but someone is certainly going to get rolled.

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