Fears of violence are mounting in the city of Abidjan as Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo clings to power following a disputed Nov. 28 run-off vote, despite international calls for him to cede power to presidential challenger Alassane Ouattara.
Pressure mounted on incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo to cede power on Tuesday as his political rival issued a call for civil disobedience and the United States became the latest nation to impose a travel ban on the defiant Ivorian strongman and his allies.
From a heavily guarded waterfront hotel in the commercial capital of Abidjan, where presidential challenger Alassane Ouattara has been based since a contested Nov. 28 run-off vote, the Ouattara camp called on Ivorians to rise up against Gbagbo.
"I call on you to show disobedience to Laurent Gbagbo's fake government, from this moment until it falls," Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's choice for prime minister, declared in a statement released Tuesday.
The call came hours before the US State Department authorised a travel ban against Gbagbo’s administration. The European Union had earlier issued a travel ban on Gbagbo and his close supporters.
Speaking to reporters during a conference call from Washington, William Fitzgerald, the US deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, said the move initially concerns about 30 people, although he declined to provide names. Speaking in French, Fitzgerald said the children and close family members of Gbagbo backers – including those studying in the United States – could be deported.
Fitzgerald also did not rule out the possibility of future trade sanctions against a Gbagbo regime. “All options are open for the United States, African countries and European countries,” he said.
Return of a feared lieutenant
The US travel ban came as other members of the international community act in concert to clamp down on Gbagbo. The UN Security Council unanimously voted on Monday to extend its peacekeeping mission in the West African nation, despite Gbagbo's calls for the UN to leave.
The United Nations, the United States, the European Union, the African Union and the West African bloc ECOWAS have all recognised Ouattara as the winner of the November presidential run-off.
Both Ouattara and Gbagbo, however, are claiming the presidency and have selected their own cabinets, pitching this West African nation onto a dangerously divided course. Gbagbo, who has been in office since 2000, postponed elections six times after his term expired in 2005, until the first round of voting was held on Oct. 31.
In a disturbing turn of events that is reminiscent of the troubled days of the 2004 civil war, Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo’s notorious lieutenant, has been holding rallies across Abidjan in recent days.
In his addresses to crowds of mostly young males, Ble Goude has been espousing his familiar anti-Western themes, calling on Ivorians to fight for their sovereignty.
Since 2006, Ble Goude has been under UN sanctions for his alleged role in bloody ethnic and nationalist street violence. He currently serves as Gbagbo's youth minister.
Armed men roam at night
While daylight sees a semblance of normality – albeit a tense one – in the streets of Abidjan, fear and violence reigns at night, especially in Ouattara's strongholds. Violent incidents have been on the rise in recent days in this sprawling city, say FRANCE 24’s reporters on the ground.
“There’s growing evidence that, overnight, armed men come into Ouattara strongholds in civilian vehicles and terrorize the population,” said FRANCE 24’s Cyril Vanier, reporting from Abidjan. “There’s strong evidence that the violence is happening overnight, during the curfew, by these armed men.”
“Armed men have been coming to the personal houses of United Nations employees, asking them to leave and searching their houses under the pretext of looking for arms,” Choi told a news conference.
A spokesman for Gbagbo in Paris said on Monday that he doubted soldiers or those supporting Gbagbo would be involved in such tactics.
About 10,000 UN peacekeepers are currently stationed in Ivory Coast, with some 800 charged with protecting the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara is holed up. They are, in turn, encircled by the Ivorian army, which has stayed loyal to Gbagbo.
“The UN forces’ resources are very limited,” said Emmanuel Saint-Martin, FRANCE 24’s correspondent at UN headquarters in New York. “Concerning Ouattara’s protection, there is a fear that clashes could break out in the coming days.”
Nowhere is that sentiment more palpable than in Abidjan itself. “People are afraid,” Vanier said. “People are afraid because at night they hear gunshots. They hear people trying to come into their neighbourhoods. They hear that some of their neighbours have been abducted. And the UN has confirmed that, [of] some of the people who were reported missing, their bodies were later found. So there’s a lot of fear here.”