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Gbagbo's legacy: A bitterly split Ivory Coast

Loyalists terrorized northerners, the French and citizens of foreign descent.

April 08, 2011|Robyn Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — During the decadelong rule of Laurent Gbagbo, his subjects in Ivory Coast learned to pay attention not to his words but to his deeds.

His favorite theme was national pride, the belief that Ivorians stood out among their West African neighbors and controlled their own destiny. But behind the positive rhetoric was a dark and sometimes threatening brand of patriotism that raised an unspoken question: Who truly belongs in Ivory Coast?

The last decade has been marked by boiling nationalism and xenophobic violence, with killings and harassment of northerners and Ivorians of foreign descent. There were riots against the French, the former colonial rulers, and attacks on United Nations staff members in 2006 and during the chaos that followed elections last fall.

Gbagbo's legacy: a country bitterly polarized between the mainly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south. Those divisions were evident in recent weeks as the internationally recognized winner of the elections, Alassane Ouattara, resorted to military force in an attempt to pry loose Gbagbo's grip on power.

Over the years, Gbagbo regularly made use of a dangerously unpredictable youth militia called the Young Patriots to take to the streets, rioting, burning and killing in support of his regime. He never overtly incited them, but proxies did so. He didn't use hate speech to stir up xenophobic sentiment; his supporters did it for him.

A terrifying pattern emerged: The Young Patriots, mostly unemployed youths, would set up roadblocks and riot for several days before Gbagbo would call for calm and tell them to go home -- often appearing to justify them by speaking of "provocations."

The Young Patriots' chauvinistic and charismatic leader, Charles Ble Goude, nicknamed Le General, was one of Gbagbo's closest allies and was handsomely rewarded with cars, money and ultimately a Cabinet post as youth minister.

In 2004, the Young Patriots rioted against French-owned businesses. When the U.N. in 2006 called on the government to hold elections that had been due the year before, the Young Patriots attacked the world body's local facilities.

Gbagbo, who has long been adept at using state television to rouse nationalist sentiment, bombarded the population with propaganda in recent weeks, accusing the U.N. and French of a genocidal anti-Ivorian conspiracy.

But his final contortions to save himself and his family seemed desperate and almost deluded, given that he had been defeated twice, at the polls and in battle. Holed up in an underground bunker, with no bargaining chips left, he declared he wasn't surrendering or recognizing Ouattara as president.

He took this stance despite being completely isolated. His home had been hit by a U.N. airstrike. He had lost the support of his last African ally, Angola, and had been slapped with sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. The African Union had urged him to leave power, and his West African neighbors had threatened military force against him.

By clinging to power, he may have lost any leverage for gaining a peaceful exile -- particularly if he is held responsible for atrocities committed by his supporters, which Human Rights Watch says may amount to crimes against humanity.

A Sorbonne-educated history professor, Gbagbo uses the earthy Ivorian French of the unschooled man in the street, a common touch that made him popular with poor unemployed southerners. He despised the French for cozying up to the country's first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, even though opposition parties were banned for 30 years under the autocratic leader until 1990.

Houphouet-Boigny did little to disturb French economic interests and ownership of Ivorian assets, and presided over a period of undemocratic prosperity. Despite its tropical heat and mosquito-infested lagoon, the city of Abidjan was seen as the Paris of Africa, with an ice-skating rink and French cafes serving croissants

In the capital, Yamoussoukro, Houphouet-Boigny's vast presidential compound lay behind a crocodile-filled lake not far from the vast French-designed cathedral he had built in the jungle. Thousands of migrants from nearby Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were drawn to the economic miracle, settling to work in the cocoa and coffee plantations.

Gbagbo emerged as the main opposition figure to Houphouet-Boigny and was jailed for his activities. When he finally took power in 2000, Gbagbo had little regret over upsetting French interests and drumming up anti-French sentiment.

His supporters promoted the slogan " A chacun son blanc," or "To each his white," which the Young Patriots took as an invitation to go after the French. The attacks on French interests damaged Ivory Coast's prosperity, which had relied on stability, though the nation remained the world's largest cocoa producer.

Under Gbagbo, northerners and Ivorians of foreign descent endured police harassment and ID searches. The xenophobic undertone was designed to undercut Ouattara, a northern Muslim whose mother was Burkinabe.

In 2002, northern rebels rose up against Gbagbo, chafing against discrimination. The civil war ended with the country divided between Gbagbo's army in the south and the rebels in the north, the same force that surfaced in recent weeks to back Ouattara's bid to oust Gbagbo.

On the eve of November's elections, Gbagbo said he was willing to step down if he lost. Instead he followed the path of many of Africa's "big men," including Houphouet-Boigny. He clung to power, apparently unable to imagine his country without him as leader.


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