ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — A day after proclaiming himself president of this West African nation, Gen. Robert Guei was forced from power Wednesday by a people's revolt, apparently the first successful effort by civilians in the region to nullify questionable election results.
Defying threats of violence and military retaliation, tens of thousands of residents and renegade soldiers flocked to the streets of this coastal city for a second day of protests that drove Guei from office. While some of the general's security forces and key junta members turned against him, other die-hard loyalists tried unsuccessfully to crush the demonstrations. At least 50 people reportedly were killed in two days.
It was unclear Wednesday evening who was in control of the presidential palace here, but fighting around the building appeared to have ceased save for some bursts of gunfire.
There were unconfirmed reports that Guei, a 59-year-old French-trained career soldier, had fled to the West African nation of Benin. Laurent Gbagbo, his principal opponent in Sunday's election, was introduced on television as the country's head of state.
Gbagbo, who had called for the protests, thanked supporters for defeating what he labeled an "electoral coup d'etat." He promised to bring electricity and running water to rural villages, provide free education through the first years of high school and institute universal health insurance.
Guei, who in December led the country's first military takeover, had declared himself the winner of the election after his government gave him 52.72% of the vote to 41.02% for Gbagbo. Officials from Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front said their candidate won 59% of the vote to 32% for Guei. There were several minor candidates.
Late Wednesday, leaders of the nation's two largest political parties, which were barred by the Supreme Court from fielding candidates in Sunday's balloting, demanded a new election. Their stance signaled that the country will probably face further tension and political upheaval.
"We can't say that Ivory Coast is out of the woods," said Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for West, Central and East Africa at Washington's National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. "But this is another opportunity for [the nation] to get a democratization process on track."
Early Wednesday morning, crowds of primarily young men--some of them with bare chests, the blackened faces of traditional warriors and leaves in their hair--poured onto the streets here, set fire to tires and garbage at makeshift barricades and shouted "Gbagbo is president!"
As the tide of humanity flowed down the city's side streets and main boulevards, hundreds of squealing bats--frightened out of their daytime slumber by the sporadic gunfire--swarmed the skies above.
With each new blast of bullets, the crowds dispersed in a frenzy, only to regroup seconds later.
On one stretch of suburban highway, demonstrators began to scatter at the sight of several approaching armored personnel carriers, only to be given the two-fingered victory sign--the symbol for Gbagbo supporters--by the troops. The crowd erupted into cheers.
As they marched, some stopped to tear down campaign posters of Guei, many of which had already been desecrated with spray paint. One woman stood in front of a massive billboard bearing the general's picture and methodically threw rocks and rusted pieces of iron at it.
A man comically swept away scraps of rubbish and branches that littered one street, as onlookers gleefully acknowledged that he was "cleaning house." On taking power, Guei had promised to "clean up the place" in preparation for the country's return to civilian rule and then step aside.
"We want democracy," said a young man who would only give his name as Charles. "The only chance for the people is Laurent Gbagbo. If [he] is not president today, we will not leave the streets."
By midday, demonstrators had overrun the state television and radio broadcast facilities, which Guei had used as a propaganda tool.
"We no longer want the military in Ivory Coast," said Mbra Kouakou, a 27-year-old protester. "We're not used to a military culture."
Gbagbo, a 55-year-old former history professor and trade unionist, was instrumental in bringing multi-party politics to Ivory Coast in 1990. He called Wednesday for reconciliation and promised to quickly form a government.
"He'll be a good president because he has great ambitions, great insight and wants Ivory Coast to be a great country," said Affi N'guessan, Gbagbo's campaign manager. "He's going to fight to solve problems, economic and social, which still keep Ivory Coast underdeveloped. He has good knowledge of what's going on in the country."
Foreign political analysts said the actions of the citizens of Ivory Coast, an oasis of calm in a tumultuous region until Guei seized power, will send a warning to other would-be vote-riggers in the region.
"The first clear message is that ordinary folks in Africa want democracy and good governance, and dictators can no longer take cover behind the military," said Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute. "It should be sending a message to autocrats on the continent that people will take to the streets in order to ensure that an electoral outcome is not manipulated."