African viewpoint: On brinkmanship

Laurent Gbagbo on the day of his capture

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and politician Elizabeth Ohene considers why Ivory Coast's deposed leader Laurent Gbagbo did not want to give up.

I have been in the United States these past few weeks where all the news has been about the threat of government shutdown, wall-to-wall coverage, nothing else.

In the end, it did not happen, even though the brinkmanship went on all the way to the last possible moment.

I have also of course been following the events in Ivory Coast, all the way to the capture, the now famous white vest of the once-Marxist, history professor, president.

But then I have been watching that in disbelief since the elections in November.

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There was a definite downbeat look about the Gbagbo people. They were dressed, some people said, like the socialists that they were, ill-fitting suits, dodgy hairstyles...”

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Surely, I have been telling myself, he would pull back from the precipice.

There is no way Laurent Gbagbo would want to go down with everybody and everything.

His nickname, after all is Cicero, which he acquired for his love of Latin in school; this man made his name in politics arguing for multiparty democracy at the time when it was not the fashionable thing in Africa.

This is the professor of history the BBC Focus on Africa programme used to interview, who would tell us it was more important to have diverse political views in Ivory Coast than economic prosperity under Felix Houphouet-Boigny's one-party state.

This man is reputed to be a philosopher, he is a linguist of admirable capabilities and his oratory shows signs of being a man who takes history lessons to heart.

This is the man who, on becoming president, announced that state news media would no longer have to mention the president in all news programmes and portraits of the president would not have to be put up in offices and public places.

Marble floors

Admittedly once he became president he promptly forgot such pronouncements; all the same I kept thinking that when push came to shove he would revert to his Sorbonne-educated, urbane Cicero persona.

But maybe I was ignoring other tell-tale signs.

When he first came to power, what the world had known for years as the "Ivorian government look" did change.

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In one other material way, Mr Gbagbo turned out to be different from the ancient Roman philosopher whose name he carried as a nickname”

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Gone were the smart, sharp suits and haute couture look of the Houphoet-Boigny years, there was a definite downbeat look about the Gbagbo people.

They were dressed, some people said, like the socialists that they were, ill-fitting suits, dodgy hairstyles and shoes that we used to call back in the 1970s, "Jesus is a soul man".

But that did not last and before very long, the Gbagbo people had been transformed and looked every inch French haute couture, as their Houphoet-Boigny predecessors had done.

Then as part of a Ghana delegation on a visit to Ivory Coast in 2001, I heard Mr Gbagbo try to explain to his then Ghanaian counterpart John Kufuor why he had such stiff opposition in the country.

"It is all these," he said as he showed us around the lavishly decorated presidential palaces and the wide streets of the capital, Yamoussoukro.

"They all want these."

The dome of the Notre Dame de la Paix is seen in the background as a man rides a bicycle in the streets of Yamoussoukro - Archive shot 2010 Ivory Coast's capital, Yamoussoukro, has many lavish buildings

Ivory Coast's first president, Mr Houphoet-Boigny, had certainly left an impressive presidential infrastructure around the country and for Mr Gbagbo, suddenly gone were the ideological posturings.

It had all come down to marble floors and presidential palaces.

But I still thought he would go to the very brink but pull back at the last moment; not unlike the American politicians who were going to shut down their government.

But there was to be no pulling back at the last moment, he preferred to go down with the house; so he stayed in the bunker of the marble palace and it was shot up and looted.

If he could not have it, nobody else would.

In one other material way, Mr Gbagbo turned out to be different to the ancient Roman philosopher whose name he carried as a nickname.

When those who had been sent to assassinate the original Cicero caught up with him, he is alleged to have said: "There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly", and then offered up his neck.

Monsieur Gbagbo we are told, shouted at the troops that entered his bunker: "Don't kill me."

Why did he think it was acceptable for so many people to be killed and his country destroyed just so he can be president?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    its quite interesting to see some of these african leaders killing their own people because they don't want to hand the power to others&there's this teethless lions African Unions the champions of government of national unity,whenever there's is a mass killings their aim is lets bring in GNU,they like bunch of murderes,covering their mates

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Elizabeth, when the dust settles on events in CI, I hope, history will be kind to Gbagbo.

    Yes, history, we are told is written by victors, but, the Bible tells us, History can be written by well. And that one is more accurate than one written by the victors.

    As Africans, please Elizabeth, write about the losers' history. Go back to the beginning my sister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    JW, even if Elizabeth wrote in paragraphs, the editors at the BBC will make just about every sentence its own paragraph. Go read some other articles and you'll see this for yourself.

    And Cypres -- your comment about dead trees is hilarious -- thank you for a great mental image! What if all world leaders were replaced by dead trees? Maybe we'd be better off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    African despots of the likes of Robert Mugabe always think that they are immortal and invincible, till they have their ears cut like Samuel Dow or left in white vests like Gbagbo. Then you see a weak vulnerable figure. But when they issue orders surrounded by thier cronies, they seem immortal. It neednt have gone this way in Cote D ivore. However, lets beware of the Moslems thugs from the North.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The real test come form his opponents. Do they merely follow suite and live the life of Houphoet-Boigny dynasty had left them. Our will they bring real change for there people and not just there side of the conflict benefiting. Now is the time to really aid there people both sides of them.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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