Thursday, April 7, 2011
By ADAM NOSSITER
ACCRA, Ghana — Surrounded, outnumbered and under repeated attacks, the Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo has held out against all odds, refusing to budge from the presidential residence in a last stand that has both befuddled and infuriated the international powers that are demanding his surrender.
“This stubbornness is absurd,” France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, told French radio on Wednesday, after negotiations failed. “Gbagbo no longer has any options. Everyone has dropped him.”
But in his seemingly futile resistance, Mr. Gbagbo is doing what he knows best, playing for time and living up to his nickname: “the boulanger,” or the baker, who confounds his opponents by rolling them in flour and putting them in a nearly inescapable bind.
Every day that he remains in the presidential residence in Abidjan — guarded by about 200 loyal fighters, protected in a luxurious basement redoubt that, according to one visitor, includes a grand ministerial meeting room and a well-stocked library — Mr. Gbagbo makes the country increasingly ungovernable for his rival, Alassane Ouattara, whose troops have been at the gates trying to drag Mr. Gbagbo out.
Mr. Ouattara’s victory in the presidential election last year has been recognized by the African Union, the United Nations and other international bodies. But if and when Mr. Ouattara comes to power, it will not have been solely through the ballot box, but also through the use of force that could undermine his legitimacy at home and abroad.
After French and United Nations airstrikes to destroy heavy weapons at Mr. Gbagbo’s residence, offices and military bases this week, the many Ivorians who share his anti-Western and xenophobic fervor are expected to be even more likely to see Mr. Ouattara as foisted on them by outside forces.
He has also relied on an assortment of rebels to storm across the country, again at a price. Fighters allied with him have been accused of killing hundreds of people in western Ivory Coast. Now they are suspected of going door to door in Abidjan’s Angré neighborhood, searching for members of Mr. Gbagbo’s ethnic group in an ominous cycle of vengeance and retribution, said Richard Banegas, an Ivory Coast expert at the Sorbonne.
If proved true, such abuses could severely weaken Mr. Ouattara’s position internationally, where he has been championed as the country’s legitimate president.
In other words, Mr. Gbagbo’s protracted defiance, despite its hopeless appearance, has created a nightmare for his opponent, analysts said.
“It’s the goal that he’s seeking, to make the country absolutely ungovernable,” Mr. Banegas said. “He will not have won, but neither will his opponent.”
Mr. Ouattara seemed to acknowledge the predicament in a televised address on Thursday, expressing sadness for the victims of violence and urging his forces “to be exemplary and abstain” from looting or abusing civilians.
“All those involved in such acts will be punished,” he said. He pledged to blockade Mr. Gbagbo in his residence, protect the besieged civilians of Abidjan and quickly restore a sense of normalcy to the battered city.
Mr. Gbagbo certainly did not sound like a defeated man in the pugnacious interviews he gave by telephone to French broadcasters this week. While admitting that he was “tired,” he at times sounded almost upbeat.
“Contrary to many others who went and dropped off their children, their brothers, their sisters outside of Ivory Coast, I’m here with my whole family,” he said. “Us, we are not fleeing.”
Pressed by one interviewer about recognizing Mr. Ouattara as president, he sounded strident as he replied: “But he did not win the elections, sir, good friend. How do you want me to say that?”
Mr. Gbagbo lives well off the main road in the leafy district of Cocody, in a sprawling house designed by the country’s founder, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who jailed Mr. Gbagbo during his days in the opposition. Mr. Ouattara’s officials say Mr. Gbagbo is huddled there, in a bunker underground, clustered with a few close relatives and influential advisers.
Guy Labertit, who has known Mr. Gbagbo for almost 30 years and once coordinated Africa policy for the French Socialist Party, scoffed at that picture.
“The residence, I know it well,” he said. The first basement carries the trappings of what power brings; Mr. Labertit described it as a place of culture and comfort, with a large meeting room and a library with the books in their original Latin, befitting a former professor like Mr. Gbagbo.
Under the first basement, he said, is another level with the building’s plumbing and an underground passage leading to the French ambassador’s residence. Mr. Houphouet-Boigny created it to symbolize Ivory Coast’s colonial ties, Mr. Labertit said, but it also provided an escape route in case of a coup d’état. The passage has long since been blocked off, he added.
How long he can remain in the residence remained unclear. Speaking to senators in Paris on Thursday, the French defense minister, Gérard Longuet, said Mr. Gbagbo still commanded almost 1,000 troops in Abidjan, including 200 at his residence. That compared with Mr. Ouattara’s force of about 2,000 fighters inside the city, 1,700 French military personnel and about 2,250 United Nations troops in Abidjan, out of a total of 10,000 international peacekeepers, he said.
Mr. Juppé told the senators that Mr. Gbagbo’s departure appeared “inevitable,” but he declined to speculate about when it might happen. “I’m not going to say the next few hours or days; I’m being prudent,” he said.
It was a stance markedly less confident than the one French officials had adopted just a day earlier, when Adm. Édouard Guillaud, chief of staff of the French armed forces, said that Mr. Gbagbo’s surrender was likely a “question of hours.”
In Abidjan, chaotic conditions prevailed, prompting Mr. Ouattara’s pledge to safeguard the city, restore basic services and resuscitate the economy.
Armed men pillaged and occupied the residence of the Japanese ambassador, Yoshifumi Okamura, forcing him and several members of his staff to take refuge in a safe room before their nighttime helicopter rescue by French Special Forces. The French troops exchanged heavy machine-gun fire with unidentified armed forces on the ground, officials said. Other diplomats had also asked to be rescued.
Abidjan’s residents described a harsh environment in which food stores were systematically looted and young men from the countryside patrolled the streets with weapons.
“At 3 o’clock this morning we heard youths shouting, ‘Lay down your arms,’ ” said Alatise Mumini, a resident of the Adjamé neighborhood.
Mr. Ouattara’s army is a ragtag collection of former rebels from the 2002 uprising that split the country, fighters from independent militias and defectors from Mr. Gbagbo’s forces. Northern Ivory Coast has been a virtual independent state since the civil war, under the sway of 10 rebel commanders who have run the region as a quasi-racketeering enterprise that “resembles a warlord economy,” a United Nations group of experts concluded in 2009.
The men under those commanders “have spent years doing exactly what they wanted in the north. They are going to continue,” said Mr. Banegas.
Mr. Ouattara’s prospects are cloudy at best if he takes office, Mr. Banegas added. “One must not be naïve and think that when he arrives, everything will be O.K.,” he said. “Unfortunately, he’s come to power by force, in spite of himself.”