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Ivory Coast Strongman Declares Victory at Polls

Africa: Riots erupt amid charges of vote fraud. Junta leader's opponent urges citizens to take to the streets.

October 25, 2000|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei brushed aside accusations of vote fraud and declared himself president Tuesday, triggering riots and casting doubt over prospects for a return to democracy and civilian rule in a country that long was one of Africa's most stable.

Interior Ministry officials said Guei won 52.72% of Sunday's vote, compared with 41.02% for his main rival, veteran opposition politician Laurent Gbagbo.

But Gbagbo, a former history professor, also proclaimed himself the winner and called for protest marches.

"I cannot let a country be dragged into the mud, as Guei would like it," Gbagbo told a cheering crowd at his campaign headquarters in an Abidjan suburb. "I ask that in all the cities of Ivory Coast and in every neighborhood, Ivorians take to the streets."

At least one person was reported killed when soldiers fired into a crowd of demonstrators in Abidjan, the seaside commercial capital. Crude barricades erected by protesters blocked off neighborhoods, and smoke from burning tires wafted over the city.

Protesters vowed to stay on the streets until the military regime gives in.

"We are fed up; we are tired," said Frank Allen Atsin, a student and local youth movement leader, who was manning a makeshift barricade at the intersection of a main highway leading to both Guei's and Gbagbo's campaign headquarters.

"We don't want the military. Guei is not an honest man. We cannot have confidence in him. We are asking him to leave; otherwise, we will stay on the streets. We are ready to die," he said.

Unrest in this West African country is a bad omen for the rest of the battered continent, underscoring that even Africa's most stable countries are not immune from military takeovers and violent protests. And analysts say Guei's move might encourage generals in other countries.

Guei's supporters insisted that he is Ivory Coast's only hope for long-term peace and stability. Guei called on Ivorians to unite.

"Today's success is your success--it is your victory over the cruel maneuvers of the enemies of Ivory Coast," he said Tuesday in a televised address.

A French-trained career soldier, Guei, 59, came to power in December after toppling President Henri Konan Bedie, who was widely viewed as corrupt and divisive. It was the country's first putsch since gaining independence from France in 1960.

Guei promised to swiftly give up power, but he traded his military fatigues for a suit and tie and announced his candidacy for president. He insisted that he would step down if he lost.

Gbagbo's party claimed that its own count showed their candidate won by 59% percent to 32%. A small, preliminary sampling of the official tally released Monday showed Gbagbo with 53%. But the vote counting appeared to have been interrupted and the announcement of the final tally delayed.

Government officials dismissed the electoral commission for incompetence, claiming that its list of registered voters was almost 2 million too high. And they said that about 153,000 votes had to be invalidated.

Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters poured onto the streets, hurling bottles at soldiers and police, clutching posters of their candidate and chanting "Guei, step down!"

Makeshift barriers of tires, concrete slabs and pieces of wood were erected in neighborhoods across the city. Roads and sidewalks were littered with broken bottles, cans and garbage. Smoke from burning rubber and other fires billowed above rooftops along the sun-soaked horizon.

Officials declared a state of emergency until Sunday, and an overnight curfew was imposed. Hundreds of soldiers and police wearing riot gear fanned out across the city, massing around strategic positions, including the presidential palace, state television and the airport.

Gbagbo, 55, was the only political heavyweight left in the race to oppose Guei after several candidates, including those of the country's two largest political parties, were barred from running.

In Washington, the Clinton administration denounced what spokesmen called an "illegitimate" effort by Guei to steal the election and manipulate the process.

"We strongly protest the repeated efforts of Gen. Guei to manipulate the electoral process. The result is a fundamentally flawed electoral process," said State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker. "The United States calls on the military junta to respect the will of the Ivorian people."

France, which has strong influence in West Africa, has told Guei that neither it nor the European Union would accept any attempt to deny voters their choice.

The United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the European Union and individual countries including the U.S. and Canada withdrew election monitors or froze aid to protest how the election was conducted.

Some analysts and diplomats said that isolating Guei might backfire.

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