In a bunker and on the brink, Gbagbo remains defiant
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It looks like the game is over for Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, a veteran negotiator known as "Le Boulanger" for his skill at manipulating his enemies – but he is not making it easy for those who want to see him gone.
Holed up in his bunker at the presidential palace in Abidjan – and besieged on all sides by forces loyal to his presidential rival, Alassane Ouattara – embattled Ivorian incumbent Laurent Gbagbo was playing one last hand as the international chorus of calls for his departure grew louder on Wednesday.
“Everybody’s dropped him,” said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé in a radio interview on Wednesday. Juppé added that for Gbagbo, the only things left to discuss were “the conditions of his departure”.
On Tuesday night it looked like the Ivorian strongman was about to fold after months of refusing to cede power to Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of a Nov. 28 presidential run-off. After hours of negotiations in Abidjan between Gbagbo aides, the French ambassador and UN officials, the top UN envoy in Ivory Coast told the press that Gbagbo’s surrender was “imminent”. An internal UN document seen by Reuters on Tuesday said Gbagbo had already surrendered.
But surrender, it seems, was not on the cards – at least for Gbagbo.
Gbagbo told French radio station RFI on Wednesday that he was not negotiating his departure. "We are not at the negotiating stage,” he said. “And my departure from where? To go where?" He told French TV station LCI a day earlier that he had “won the election” and found it incredible “that the entire world is playing this … game of poker”.
A pugnacious political player, Gbagbo has a long history of fighting to hold on to power. In French-speaking West African circles, the Ivorian strongman is called “Le Boulanger,” or the baker, a play on the French phrase for “rolling people in flour”, or manipulating them.
“But he doesn’t have any flour left,” said FRANCE 24's international affairs editor Armen Georgian. “What he does have, though, are many more opponents.”
Last week, in the latest military move of the violent post-election standoff that has claimed at least 1,500 lives and displaced a million people since November, forces loyal to Ouattara blitzed through the country in a lighting offensive that has been checked – for the moment – at the gates of Gbagbo’s citadel in the Cocody district of Abidjan.
Diplomats were trying to exploit a ceasefire, brokered Tuesday night, to find a way through the impasse. But Ouattara’s men are straining at the leash.
Reporting from New York, FRANCE 24’s UN correspondent Nathan King said that, with the existing power vacuum in the West African nation, the international community was facing an enormous challenge in maintaining the ceasefire. “Pro-Ouattara forces are very itchy about this,” he said, citing UN officials. “If these talks don’t go anywhere soon they will resume fighting.”
By Wednesday afternoon all hopes of a ceasefire collapsed when pro-Ouattara forces stormed the bunker at Gbagbo's residence where he was hiding. "They are in the process of entering the residence to seize Gbagbo," a Ouattara spokeswoman, Affousy Bamba, told Reuters. "They have not taken him yet, but they are in the process. They are in the building."
While Gbagbo has been isolated internationally, he nevertheless has a significant support base in Ivory Coast. Gbagbo took a respectable 46% of the November vote compared to Ouattara’s 54%.
Ouattara draws his support mainly from the Muslim-majority north and pockets of cosmopolitan Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. Gbagbo’s support is focused in the western part of the country and is reinforced by violent and fervently patriotic youth militias led by Gbagbo’s youth minister, Charles Blé Goude. Goude, an army general notorious for his strong-arm tactics, has been urging young Ivorians to take up arms against the UN and French "mercenaries" who have been supporting Ouattara troops in the last week’s offensive.
Ouattara likely realises that a bloody and undignified end for Gbagbo could violently backfire, as Ivory Coast remains a powder keg of ethnic and political tensions. But even if Gbagbo is barely hanging on, he seems determined not to make it easy for Ouattara to score a final political victory.