Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Civil War Comes Calling in Ivory Coast

A dictator holed up in the presidential palace who refuses to give up power, whose soldiers fire mortars into urban neighborhoods and shoot at peaceful protestors, who is out of touch and claims his people support him… An army advancing toward the capital to force him out…

But this is not Quaddafi in Tripoli. It’s Laurent Gbagbo, the Baker of Ivory Coast, holed up in the presidential palace in Abidjan. Four months have passed since he lost a remarkable election. The vote in Ivory Coast was the third election in the world to be certified by the United Nations (after East Timor and Nepal), the first in Africa. The results were independently tabulated by the United Nations. There’s no question who won. The election had only one major flaw: no concession speech.

A former history professor and pro-democracy activist (could I make these things up?), Gbagbo refused to admit he lost. Instead, he lodged a complaint that his voters were intimidated in the northern part of the country, where his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, won 93% of the vote. Gbagbo’s allies on the nation’s highest court ruled in his favor, toyed with the results, and subtracted the northern regions. When you subtract the votes from those areas, le voila! Gbagbo wins. It’s a constitutional coup d’état. There is no legal recourse to reverse a decision of the highest court.

No credible evidence supports Gbagbo’s claims of intimidation in the north. There were, in fact, more irregularities and more violence in the western part of the country, which Gbagbo carried. But he hasn’t suggested throwing out those votes. In fact, the Constitutional Council, the court that issued the ruling, has overstepped its authority. According to the Ivorian electoral code, the court must either validate an election or declare it void and call for a new one within 45 days. It doesn’t have the authority to throw out some votes and keep others. If Gbagbo gets away with this, it’s a huge setback for democracy in Africa. But four months in, his world seems to be falling apart.

While the Security Council discusses whether to ban heavy arms in Abidjan, Gbagbo continues to fire them at civilians. They call him the Baker because he rolls his enemies in flour. It doesn’t sound that bad. But that’s the whole point. Blinded by flour, you don’t realize what is happening until you’re popped into a hot oven.

The commune of Abobo, in northern Abidjan, has suffered the most from Gbagbo’s forces. It is now controlled by insurgents that everyone calls the Invisible Commandos. The newly-constituted Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, made up of former rebels and defectors from Gbagbo’s armed forces, is moving quickly toward Yamassoukro, the official political capital. From there, it’s only a couple of hours to Abidjan. It’s not on the world’s big screen, but it is civil war.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Abobo, including the friend I call Gnéré, who has found sanctuary with a relative outside the city. When I finally reach her, she sounds like her old self. “I got the children into school!” she tells me excitedly. After months of being cooped up in the apartment, her three boys are finally back in elementary school. Next she will try to find places in middle school and high school for her younger sister and brother. “I’d like to go home,” she says. “But we’ll stay here for now and see what happens.”

I reached her husband in Abobo last night. Gbagbo’s forces were firing mortars into the neighborhood. I could hear them popping in the background as we spoke. I asked him how he manages to get out of Abobo, to his job, and back again. “I used to pray to God every time I left the house,” he said. “As I drove, I would pray not to cross the tanks. But now, nowhere is safe. Sometimes the mortars explode in the air. But sometimes they land on houses. Now we have to pray all the time, wherever we are.”

The city is dead, he said. Businesses closed, the port nearly empty. I called and called the student I know who is trapped in another part of Abobo. His family nickname is Old Man because he is named for his grandfather. A mortar landed in his area yesterday, according to an article on the Internet. Old Man’s cellphone rang and rang, but there was no answer. Network error, said the message. I’ve been trying to help Old Man get out of Abobo. But Western Union and Moneygram are closed because they operate through banks. Just when people need it most, their relatives and friends abroad can’t send cash.

Meanwhile, thousands of unemployed young men who support Gbagbo have volunteered to join his brutal loyalist security forces. Even Barack Obama, who never uses overheated language, called them “thugs.” They have given the army their phone numbers and are waiting for the call to arms. It’s civil war by cellphone. We can only hope their calls don’t go through.

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