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Ivory Coast heads into the abyss

Andrew Harding | 08:49 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

"Be careful - trust no-one," is the half-whispered welcome of a baggage handler at Abidjan's smart international airport. Officials crowd round our luggage, but are not interested in their contents, only our intentions - "You will tell lies like the French," one uniformed woman snarls. A man in dark glasses demands of me: "So, who won our elections?"

Life is on hold for Abidjan residents

It's two months since my last visit here. In January, Ivory Coast was moving steadily towards the brink of civil war. Today, it is already plunging headlong into the abyss.

A rash of menacing roadblocks has erupted across the city, set up by a confusing array of militias and soldiers who are steadily carving frontlines into every neighbourhood. Parts of this once-elegant city still seem calm, but there is a twitchy and deepening sense of insecurity everywhere. In the west of the country, the fighting has already begun in earnest.

Laurent Gbagbo, the man deemed to have lost last November's heavily monitored presidential election, remains in his office. He has already "nationalised" the banks - "one of the biggest bank robberies in history" is how a western diplomat here describes it - now he's doing the same thing with the cocoa industry.

Smart tactics by a man feeling the squeeze of international sanctions - but will it buy him more than a few weeks' worth of salaries for his soldiers and civil servants?

A final diplomatic push by the African Union to find a peaceful settlement looks like it will collapse later this week. Mr Gbagbo has been invited to Ethiopia for his first face-to-face meeting with Alassane Ouattara, the man almost universally recognised as the duly elected president of Ivory Coast. Mr Gbagbo - probably fearing a coup - is unlikely to leave town.

And the AU's early and adamant unity in support of Mr Ouattara has been fatally weakened by South Africa's reckless politicking, which has seen Pretoria call the election "inconclusive." "Unusual and unhelpful," as one observer here put it. The AU's final recommendations seem certain to be ignored.
So then what?

Some sort of military escalation seems the most likely right now.
Mr Gbagbo could cling on for many months. Or he could be ousted by his generals. Mr Ouattara's forces could launch an offensive from their bases in the north of the country. Or Nigeria could take the initiative after its own elections next month and push for a regional military intervention. Or the wretched status quo - complete with a rising death toll - could drag on indefinitely.

And today Women's Day is likely to be marked here with rallies across the city. On many people's minds - last week's vicious attack on unarmed women demonstrators.


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  • 1. At 11:46am on 08 Mar 2011, Sizwe M wrote:

    Mr Zuma should probably be paying more attention to current affairs in South Africa rather than prancing around Africa and adding zero value like his predecessor. No doubt someone from Ivory Coast will comment that a South African election is 'inconclusive' when the ANC has their leadership properly challenged sometime in the future.

    My prediction goes with the wretched status quo for quite some time to come.


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  • 2. At 12:37pm on 08 Mar 2011, Bolingbroke8 wrote:

    Mr Gbagbo is the kind of megalomaniac who will be quite happy to see his country in ashes around him, so long as he remains El Presidente. Is this the point of no return?

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  • 3. At 2:35pm on 08 Mar 2011, jeanpaul98 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 4. At 3:09pm on 08 Mar 2011, Moses Gweh wrote:

    Dear BBC, i am a liberian who lived as refugee in ivorycoast for the past ten years.Please, please, BBC tell mr Laurant Gbagbo to leave peacefully without distrouying the country that president Feix Houphouet Boigny suffer to build.

    Moses Gweh, presently living in the USA.

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  • 5. At 3:11pm on 08 Mar 2011, Andrew Harding BBC wrote:

    A lively day here so far - just left an area near the city centre where we were forced to take refuge in a building. There was about half an hour of fairly sustained gunfire on the surrounding streets. We saw a dozen or more soldiers chasing a crowd of young men. I can still hear the gunfire from where I'm now writing this. Not clear what triggered it all. Earlier we found ourselves surrounded by about a thousand young men - Gbagbo suporters - at a very tense makeshift roadblock north of the city. No great drama - but not an experience to repeat too often. In another neighbourhood - a pro-Ouattara one - we saw a demonstration of about three hundred women. They held candles, and placards describing Gbagbo as an assassin for the deaths last week of seven women shot by security forces at a similar demo. The rally dispersed quickly and calmly.
    The streets in the central business district are clogged with queues of people trying to get money from banks. I spoke to some - who were all civil servants and ardent Gbagbo supporters. They insisted there was no crisis, and that their leader was not responsible for their problems but rather it was foreigners - the French in particular - who were to blame for imposing sanctions.

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  • 6. At 3:39pm on 08 Mar 2011, jeanpaul98 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 7. At 4:40pm on 08 Mar 2011, Marie-Helene wrote:

    How can we be so sure that Gbagbo didn't win the elections when Ouattara's forces in the North had not disarmed during the elections despite their pledge to do so and that it was the French who had wanted Gbagbo out ever since he was first elected who did the monitoring together with UN's Senegales troups, equally opposed to Gbagbo's re-election?
    Furthermore it is practically impossible to check what's going on in the North due to the geography of the country.
    If Ouattara has won, why is there not a recount, or better some fresh elections supervised by South Africa and Russian forces? Why let this country go to ruin just to please the French who don't want to accept that the Ivory Coast is no longer their colony.

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  • 8. At 5:51pm on 08 Mar 2011, Andrew Harding BBC wrote:

    My understanding is that this election was not controlled by the French but was painstakingly negotiated by Ivorian politicians, then supervised and monitored thoroughly and very expensively by a range of international bodies. As one western diplomat involved put it to me - "this must have been one of the most watched and observed elections on the African continent." Those observer groups agreed that, while there were some problems in some areas, the result itself was not in doubt. Ouattara's commanding victory did surprise some analysts - and clearly Mr Gbagbo himself. But then surprises are surely in the nature of elections.

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  • 9. At 7:58pm on 08 Mar 2011, blefuscu wrote:

    Your reference to the story of the Outtara Women in Abobo has to seen in its context. The reports of the shooting derive from Outtara's 'Invisible Commandos' in the suburb of Abobo.

    A messy situation but the violence is not all one way. The Marches (by women) are used as a cover to attack police and pro-Gbago neighbourhoods by armed Outtara insurrectionists.

    One wonders if the story reported by the BBC and repeated by Andrew, is not doing justice to the reality.

    Reuters reported:

    Seven women were killed last Thursday after security forces opened fire on protesters in the northern pro-Ouattara suburb of Abobo, according to witnesses and military sources.
    On Tuesday, a march there went off peacefully but was swiftly followed by bursts of gunfire.
    "Gbagbo, assassin! Gbagbo, power thief! Leave!" the women shouted and sang, some in traditional dress, others wearing T-shirts printed with Ouattara's face.
    The only men with guns present were pro-Ouattara youths with AK-47s and civilian clothes, who residents said were there to protect the march. One warned Reuters TV not to film them.
    But witnesses said almost as soon as the march petered out, machinegun fire rocked the neighbourhood.
    "We've been hearing machinegun fire for much of the afternoon. It sounds like two groups fighting each other but I don't know," said resident Tiemoko Souala.
    Another Abobo resident said they saw security forces move along the main street before the machinegun fire erupted.

    Abobo is now largely controlled by insurgents calling themselves the "invisible commandos" and professing loyalty to Ouattara, after a week of gun battles in which they pushed out police and military loyal to incumbent leader Gbagbo."

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  • 10. At 8:04pm on 08 Mar 2011, OldAnarchist wrote:

    Keep safe Andrew - Abidjan is not a friendly city at the best of times! I did some consulting work out there for an American company in 2008 and the difference between CI and Senegal in terms of the people and attitudes was striking.

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  • 11. At 2:08pm on 09 Mar 2011, BluesBerry wrote:

    The AU resolutions were expected by February 28th; it's now expected that the resolutions SHOULD BE out by the end of March.
    1. What has happened to the exemplary show of unity among AU Member States right after the electoral crisis in Cote d'Ivoire. Does this not signal dilution of aythority inside the AU itself?
    2.With conflicting voices within the ranks of the AU, Laurent Gbagbo's followers have taken advantage. His approach now appears to be: "anti-imperialist" and with the mood in Northern Africa this will win the hearts and minds, sufficient hearts and minds to create doubt about the capacity of the AU to resolve the crisis.
    The AU reaffirms its recognition of Allassane Ouattara as the "elected President" of Cote d'Ivoire, but there is something less sure about the affirmation...something uncertain. ECOWAS and the AU are certainly out of step and this mis-stepping is growing, rather than closing.
    ECOWAS is chaired by Nigeria which has indirectly denigrated the attitude of some members of the AU (i.e. South Africa).
    Domestically, Laurent Gbagbo is determined to violently suppress any protest against his regime; he has ordered his security forces to resort to shooting live ammunitions to displace any pro-Ouattara demonstrations. A recent manifestation of this took place when the alleged Gbagbo security forces shot at a group of women supporting Ouattara. Apparently, 6 women were killed.
    There is an intransigence from all the key players; so, the likelihood of an AU decision becomes negligible. Proponents of Alassane Ouattara continue to seek military intervention. From whom? Cote d'Ivoire is in a state of civil war. The AU has accomplished so little.
    Now there is the Forces Nouvelles and pro-Gbagbo soldiers. It is reported that Forces Nouvelles troops have taken control of the western region of Cote d'Ivoire. In addition there is heavy fighting in Abidjan resulting in massive emigration of citizens. The UN agencies in Cote d'Ivoire said that between 25,000 and 40,000 people had fled the country, which means yet another humanitarian challenge.
    Abidjan: more volatile because of new combatants, apparently led by former Forces Nouvelles leader Ibrahim Coulibaly. The group claims to offer protection to unarmed civilians targeted by Laurent Gbagbo.
    Cote d'Ivoire has suddenly reverted to 2002 - armed forces across the country.
    Ouattara vs. Gbagbo after 10 years of peace efforts: The UN peace mission seems powerless. The anti-UN campaign mounted by Gbagbo's supporters has put the UN peacekeepers at risk. UN Resolution 1528 (establishing UNOCI): The world organization has a mandate " the Government of National Reconciliation, to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and its areas of deployment". But the government isn't capable or willing to provide security to the citizens, which (normally) would summon the UN for civilian protection.
    The issue of mercenary involvement is quite possible. As early as December 2010 it was reported that Liberian soldiers were present; they appear to have remained. This is raising security concerns for the region and specifically for Liberia and Sierra Leone. Both countries will bear the brunt of the situation in Cote d'Ivoire
    1. in terms of refugee's flow and
    2. transnational rebel movements.
    In this sense, one should've expected a positive response to tete-a-tete by Laurent Gbagbo, Allassane Ouattara and Paul Yao N'dre (President of the Constitutional Council) i.e. the AU summit in Addis Ababa on March 12, 2011. But apparently Laurent Gbagbo refuses to attend. The risk, of course, is that Gbagbo may not be allowed to return.
    Measures should therefore be taken for both Quattara & Gbagbo to return safely. Otherwise, Cote d'Ivoire is headed towards the extremely disruptive, extremely bloody abyss.

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  • 12. At 2:36pm on 09 Mar 2011, sagat4 wrote:

    Gbagbo should step down and go into exile. Failing that, a new roud of elections should be held with observers from different countries and organisations monitoring the events

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  • 13. At 10:55pm on 09 Mar 2011, Claude wrote:

    Mr Harding, the truth is that Mr Ouattara did not win the last election in Cote d'Ivoire.If the Wesrt in this context led by France believes that your candidate; Mr Ouattara has won, why are you against the idea of revisiting the election? Mr Harding I thought that the BBC is the symbol of a balanced fair reporting but when it comes to black africa your principles are lost just to serve the ambitions of French colonial emperialist empire;in my view which is and has always been evil when it comes to black africa. By the way how comes that you did not report about thousands and thousands of Ivorians marching accross Abidjan in support of Mr Gbagbo?

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