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Gbagbo rejects West African ultimatum as thousands flee

Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo has dismissed threats by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS to remove him by force should he refuse to step down. The UN says at least 14,000 Ivorians have fled the country for neighbouring Liberia.


AP - The man who refuses to leave Ivory Coast’s presidency faced new threats to his grasp on power after regional leaders threatened to remove him by force if necessary.

Meanwhile, the U.N.’s refugee agency said Saturday that at least 14,000 Ivorians have fled the chaos of their homeland, trekking for days to reach safety in Liberia.

Diplomatic pressure and sanctions have left Laurent Gbagbo increasingly isolated though he has been able to maintain his rule nearly a month after the disputed vote because of the loyalty of security forces and the military.

Even that, though, may disappear if he runs out of money to pay them.

Late Friday, West Africa leaders from the 15-country regional bloc ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, threatened to send military intervention into Ivory Coast if incumbent Gbagbo refuses to step down peacefully.

“In the event that Mr. Gbagbo fails to heed this immutable demand of ECOWAS, the Community would be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people,” said a statement from ECOWAS.

James Gbeho, president of ECOWAS said the group of West African leaders was making an “ultimate gesture” to Gbagbo to urge him to make a peaceful exit.

The 15-nation regional bloc of West African states made the decision following a six-hour emergency summit in Abuja, Nigeria, on Ivory Coast as worries mounted that the country that suffered a 2002-2003 civil war could return to conflict.

Gbeho said the bloc would send in a high-level delegation to meet with Gbagbo, and tell him to step down, but did not give details as to when the delegation would go or a deadline for Gbagbo.

The threat of force came on the tail of another serious international reproach, this one from the West African economic and monetary union, which called on the regional central bank to cut off Gbagbo’s access to state coffers.

Gbagbo’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello on Saturday denounced the decision by the union to give Ouattara’s government signing privileges on state accounts. He called the move “illegal and manifestly beyond their competence.”

The meeting of regional finance ministers that issued the freeze “overstepped its stated prerogatives by interfering in the internal affairs of a member state of the union,” Mello said on state television Friday evening.

Gbagbo’s government has denied rumors that state salaries wouldn’t be paid, and in spite of the financial freeze, civil servants received their paychecks the day before Christmas Eve. But senior diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, say that Gbagbo only has enough reserves to run the state for three months, setting the scene for a drawn-out standoff.

Ivory Coast is the world’s biggest cocoa grower, producing 40 percent of the world’s supply. While a cocoa embargo might have a more immediate impact on Gbagbo’s ability to govern, European and American business interests prevent this from being seriously considered, said African security analyst Peter Pham.

“A cocoa embargo isn’t even on the table,” said Pham, who is the Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York.

The threat of military intervention may add enough pressure to bring about a swifter resolution, said Pham, though he questioned whether a force could be brought together quickly enough to have an impact.

“Nigeria, the only real military power in the AU, is unlikely to have the stomach for a drawn-out military escapade on the eve of their own presidential election,” he said. Nigerian elections will be held in April next year.

Gbagbo has refused to step down from the presidency despite international calls for his ouster from the U.N., U.S., former colonizer France, the European Union and the African Union. The international community recognizes Alassane Ouattara as the winner, though Gbagbo maintains control of the national military.

In recent days, the United Nations has expressed alarm about the actions of men who are believed to be Gbagbo loyalists. At least 173 deaths have been confirmed in violence over the presidential vote, and the U.N. is warning the number could be greater since it has been unable to investigate all the allegations.

Masked gunmen with rocket launchers have blocked access to what officials believe may be a mass grave site in Ivory Coast, the United Nations said. The world body also reported Thursday that heavily armed forces allied with Gbagbo and joined by masked men, were preventing people from getting to the village of N’Dotre, where the global body said “allegations point to the existence of a mass grave.”

The U.N. did not elaborate on the possible victims, though it has expressed concerns about hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of torture and disappearance during the political turmoil since the presidential runoff vote was held nearly a month ago.

Even the top U.N. envoy in the country was stopped at gunpoint while trying to look into reports of human rights abuses, the U.N. deputy human rights commissioner in Geneva said Thursday.

On Saturday, the Geneva-based office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced that the agency has “registered 14,000 Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia who fled in the wake of post-electoral instability in their country for nearly a month now.”

“With their numbers growing, the humanitarian needs are increasing for the mostly women and children refugees as well as for the villagers hosting them,” the agency said in a statement.

“The growing number of new arrivals is impacting communities hosting the refugees. Food supplies are running short despite efforts by the government and humanitarian agencies to bring in more assistance,” the UNHCR said.

Meanwhile, Ouattara continued to assert his legitimacy from the Golf Hotel, where he has taken refuge since the election, protected by 800 U.N. peacekeepers.

“After these long years of crisis, the Ivorian people deserved to rejoice in our democratic advancement,” Ouattara said. “But former president Laurent Gbagbo has decided to turn a new page of violence and uncertainty, aggravating everyday a little more the suffering of Ivorians,” he said in a Christmas Eve address.

Troops loyal to Gbagbo continue to encircle the hotel. While their blockade was officially lifted last week and U.N. supply trucks were authorized to cross the lines, no one else has been allowed access to the compound.

Ouattara is trying to assert control over state television, which had been controlled by Gbagbo until Thursday, when it was pulled from airwaves in 80 percent of the country.

Only people in the main city of Abidjan continued to receive the state channel, which has been exclusively reporting Gbagbo’s victory, refusing to mention the results that make Ouattara president, or his international support.

“We don’t know who did it,” said Ouattara adviser Amadou Coulibaly, “but we’re sure glad they did.”

Ivory Coast was once an economic hub because of its role as the world’s top cocoa producer. The 2002-2003 civil war split the country into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. While the country officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara draws his support from the northern half of the country, where he was born, while Gbagbo’s power base is in the south.

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