Former history teacher Laurent Gbagbo is likely to be ousted as president of West Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire within the next few hours. And a trial in The Hague for human rights abuses almost certainly awaits him.
Forces loyal to new president, Alassane Ouattara — who was legitimately elected last November — have entered the nation’s biggest city, Abidjan, where Gbagbo is holed up in the presidential palace. And late last night there were reports of fighting around the state TV building.
“Laurent Gbagbo must step down to avoid a bloodbath,” would-be prime minister Guillaume Soro told the ABC’s Ginny Stein last night by telephone. “Hopefully he will or we will go and fetch him.”
But by 7pm Abidjan time — when the ultimatum to Gbagbo expired — there was no sign of him going quietly.
“President Gbabgo has no intention of resigning and will absolutely not surrender to some rebels,” his political adviser Alain Toussaint told France 24. “After spending 40 years in politics … he will not abdicate by surrendering to rebels.”
But, quietly or not, Gbagbo looks certain to go.
Opposition soldiers encountered virtually no resistance in the past few days and expect little in Abidjan: the commander of Gbagbo’s army has sought refuge in the South African embassy; UN peacekeepers have taken control of the airport; and barricades in the city, once manned by young Gbagbo supporters, have reportedly been abandoned. The main battle is likely to be around the presidential palace, which is protected by Gbagbo’s elite forces.
“There is no resistance,” Soro told France 24 yesterday. “There are already several generals who have joined our side.”
Gbagbo seized power in the Ivory Coast in 2000 and has held onto it for the past decade, despite an eight-year civil war between the north and south. After a peace deal brokered by African neighbours, elections were held last November, and former World Bank official (and northerner) Ouattara was declared the victor. But Gbagbo refused to go.
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Since then, at least 830 people have been killed and 1 million people have fled the violence, 500,000 of them children.
Gbagbo has been accused of using death squads to round up and murder his opponents, while his soldiers have been accused of burning, looting and killing civilians. But republican troops have also run riot. According to reports on Wednesday from Amnesty International’s delegation in Côte d’Ivoire, “On March 29, the Republican forces … shot down a pastor of an evangelical church along with eight members of his congregation.”
Amnesty blames both sides for human rights abuses in the town of Duékoué, where, “dead bodies are still lying in the streets of and tens of thousands of civilians are still sheltering in the Catholic Mission without adequate food, water, sanitation and medical care”.
There are 9000 UN peacekeepers in Cote d’Ivoire with a mandate to protect the nation’s civilians, plus 900 French soldiers guarding President-elect Ouattara, who — somewhat bizarrely — has been sheltering in the Abidjan Golf Hotel,
Yesterday, Amnesty warned there was still a major risk of bloodshed. “The escalation of this conflict, and increased reliance on mercenaries and untrained recruits, means there is a huge and immediate risk of massive human rights violations in the coming days as the Republican Forces advance on Abidjan.”
But with luck, there won’t be a bloodbath, because Gbagbo has run out of cash to pay Liberian mercenaries and regular soldiers fighting on his side. A ban on cocoa exports helped turn off the money tap, and the West African Central Bank stopped cashing his cheques after Gbagbo took out $160 million to fund his fight. UN sanctions were also effective in starving him of resources.
In the weeks after the election last November, various African countries were willing to take Gbagbo and give him asylum. But he has now missed his chance, the UN’s special envoy to Cote d’Ivoire, Young jin Choi, told CNN this morning (AEST). On Wednesday, the UN Security Council froze Gbagbo’s assets and asked for a report on a UN investigation into human rights abuses by Gbagbo to be sent to the International Criminal Court. It also banned him from travelling outside the country.