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Laurent Gbagbo's doomed fight to keep power

6 min

Laurent Gbagbo began his political career fighting to oust a president who refused to let go. Forty years later, history repeated itself with a new cast of characters as the longstanding Ivorian finally succumbed to his arch rival’s forces.


Defiant until the end, Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo fought desperately to hold on to power.

But four months after claiming victory in an election the international community said he lost, Gbagbo, holed up in a bunker beneath the presidential residence, finally surrendered to forces loyal to his arch rival Alassane Ouattara on April 11, 2011.
In the course of his long political career, the 66-year-old Ivorian leader had gone from an opposition politician fighting an intransigent president who refused to cede power to the epitome of a longstanding African leader refusing to concede an election.
Over the past four decades, Gbagbo has proved to be a fighter – although his opponents have swung from either side of the power divide. His 40-year-old political career began with a fight against the ruling power, it continued with a fight to win power until finally, it turned into a fight to hold on to it.
A far-from quiet academic life
The son of a devout Catholic schoolteacher, Gbagbo was born on May 31, 1945, in the village of Mama, near Gagnoa in western Ivory Coast. As a student, Gbagbo developed an early passion for Greek and Latin and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, enrolling in the Classics department at the University of Abidjan.
After studying briefly in Lyon, France, Gbagbo returned to Abidjan to finish his studies and work as a high school history teacher before going on to obtain his doctorate from a Paris university and finally ending up as director of the Institute of History, Art, and African Archaeology at the University of Abidjan.
But it was not a quiet academic life.
A member of the National Trade Union of Research and Higher Education, Gbagbo was imprisoned from March 1971 to January 1973 for his opposition to President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first post-colonial president who ruled the West African nation for 33 years.
It was during his trade union years that Gbagbo met Simone Ehivet – a Marxist union leader – who went on to become his second wife and staunchest defender.
Opposition politics: Gbagbo in the opposition vs. PM Ouattara
In 1982, in defiance of the country’s one-party system, Gbagbo launched the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which was swiftly targeted by the Ivorian authorities, forcing the socialist party founder-leader into exile in France, where he built up a network of support within the French Socialist Party.
Six years later, he was back home, strengthening his party base so that by 1990, when Houphouët-Boigny, facing social tension and growing disillusionment, finally introduced a multiparty system, Gbagbo announced that he was running for president.
While Houphouet-Boigny was re-elected, Gbagbo managed to win a surprising18.3 % of the vote, making an auspicious entrance onto the national political stage.
As an FPI politician, Gbagbo sat in opposition to Houphouet-Boigny’s Prime Minister, Alassane Ouattara, a man he was to famously face-off with 20 years later.
First contested election victory: President – at last
In 1993, Houphouet-Boigny died and was replaced by Henri Konan Bédié, the man responsible for introducing the combustible issue of identity - or “Ivorianness” - into the West African nation’s political discourse.
Bédié was ousted in a 1999 military coup and presidential elections were held the next year. But with the country’s main opposition figures - Bédié and Ouattara - disqualified from contesting the 2000 presidential elections, Gbagbo was the only significant opposition candidate in the race.
Although Guéï claimed victory in the 2000 election, a pro-Gbagbo revolt broke out in Abidjan forcing Guéï to flee. For Gbagbo though, it was his first contested election victory.
On October 26, 2000, Gbagbo was installed as president. At the inauguration ceremony, Gbagbo’s wife Simone could not contain her tears; after a 20-year political battle, her husband had finally reached his goal.
Leading a divided country
As head of state, Gbagbo attempted to apply the major policies of his long-established socialist programme: decentralisation, free education, establishment of universal health care.
But there were voices of dissent from the outset. In the north, Ivorians of Burkinabè descent complained of mistreatment by natives. Tensions between different communities, exacerbated by nationalist rhetoric that had seeped into political speeches, threatened the stability of a country once known for its hospitality.
In September 2002, while Gbagbo was on an official visit to Italy, armed militants from the north carried out simultaneous attacks on Abidjan, Bouaké (in the centre of the country), and Korhogo, in the north. Pushed back by government forces, the insurgents set up their base in Bouaké.
The Ivorian government asked for help from the French military, but despite a 1961 defence agreement, France refused to take sides. Instead, then-President Jacques Chirac sent forces to keep the peace between the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south.
But a November 6, 2004 Ivorian government airstrike in Bouaké killed nine French soldiers, prompting a French retaliatory strike on the Ivorian airforce and the start of a bitter tussle between Gbagbo’s government and former colonial power France.
Gbagbo’s last stand
Gbagbo’s original mandate ended in 2005. But with the country split between the rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south, the 2005 presidential elections were not held.
On March 4, 2007, after several unsuccessful attempts to restore peace, both sides finally struck a peace deal in neighbouring Burkina Faso.
After naming the chief rebel Guillaume Soro to the head of the transition government, Gbagbo announced that presidential elections would indeed be held.
But it took five years, six postponements and innumerable rounds of negotiations to achieve.
Legitimacy for Gbagbo looked within reach on October 31, 2010 when Ivory Coast finally went to the polls for the first round of the presidential election, which led to a November 28, 2010 run-off between the incumbent and Ouattara, the former Ivorian prime minister during Gbagbo’s opposition years.
But his legitimacy hit a low on December 4, 2010, when the wily Ivorian politician, disregarding international calls to respect the will of the people and concede defeat to Ouattara, was sworn in for another term in office at the presidential palace in Abidjan.
Disregarding international calls to step down, Gbagbo refused to cede power to his arch rival Alassane Ouattara, who launched a lightning military offensive that quickly overwhelmed the country and halted at the gates of Abidjan.
After a four-day assault on the presidential residence (which was backed by UN and French forces) Gbagbo, who was hiding in his bunker, surrendered to Ouattara’s men.


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