Monday, April 11, 2011

Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to be ex-president of Ivory Coast, is called The Baker because somehow he always manages to roll his enemies in flour. To roll someone in flour means to dupe them. A smooth-talking swindler looks you in the eye and tells you exactly what you want to hear. If you are gullible, you get taken in, made a fool of......Rolled.

Laurent Gbagbo tells you sincerely that you must respect the Ivorian constitution, turns those big round eyes on you and explains that Ivorians need to resolve this among themselves. He finds it absolutely astounding that they are gambling on his country's future in foreign capitals, and he needs a ceasefire in order to negotiate the terms of his departure. But be careful, because while you listen, The Baker is popping you into the hot oven and slamming the oven door closed. Rolled.

Is he crazy? Like a fox. His strategy is always to play for time. He knows politics is a high-stakes poker game and he bluffs with the best. When he tells you he’s about to fold, he’s stalling. His troops, moved into position during the ceasefire you foolishly gave him, gained ground in Abidjan and even attacked his enemy’s headquarters. Rolled. The Baker’s response to the outcry over the attack? Wasn’t us. You must have imagined it.

Tell that to the residents of the upper-class neighborhood around the hotel who are fleeing. Many of them supported Gbagbo. Unlike his opponents, he isn’t bothered by the fact that his best cards—massacres, food shortages, urban civil war -- require terrible suffering from his fellow Ivorians.

For three days in the Koumassi section of Abidjan, there was no water. Women were going from house to house with their basins, asking their neighbors to share what they had. Salifou, a student there, said his household was lucky because they have a well in the courtyard. But the well water is dirty, and usually they use it for washing, so drinking it meant they risked getting sick.

Last Wednesday, when a French television station said that Gbagbo had surrendered, Salifou and his neighbors went out into the streets, thinking the four-month ordeal was finally over. But the news turned out to be false. “At that moment,” he said, “we were so disheartened.” Rolled again.

Their greatest fear isn’t hunger or thirst, but the armed young men who prowl the streets. “The pro-Gbagbos have killed one young man near us and badly wounded another. He will die, too. There is no medical care.”

His voice droops. “If only he could have gone to the hospital…”

But he isn’t speaking of the wounded neighbor. He is talking about his older brother who died last Saturday in another part of Abidjan because he became seriously ill and it was impossible to take him to a hospital. Salifou couldn’t cross Abidjan to attend his burial. It was simply too dangerous.

Some of the armed men in pick-up trucks are looking for stores to loot, some for revenge. Some are pro-Gbagbo, others are pro-Ouattara. Some are Invisible Commandos, who owe allegiance to their commander, a former rebel leader. And some are just taking advantage of the chaos. The armed groups take over neighborhoods and defend their turf.

President Ouattara, trying to take office for the past four months while Gbagbo did everything possible to keep him out, has been forced to turn to former rebels and rebel-allied militias. If they do manage to help him take control of Abidjan, he will owe them big time. Ouattara and his Prime Minister/Minister of Defense have said the right things. They have asked their troops to refrain from acts of vengeance and they have promised to return the cars and money their troops looted as they entered the city. But words only go so far when people are desperate.

Gbagbo has used his faux African-liberation anti-imperialist rhetoric to adroitly maneuver Ouattara into a corner. If Ouattara turns to France and the United Nations, the most reliable sources of help and the ones that will demand the least destructive things in return, he proves Gbagbo right: he’s a foreigner, a puppet of the West, an “imposter.” This makes it difficult for Ouattara to win over Gbagbo’s supporters, who believe Gbagbo's fear-mongering conspiracies.

An old friend who has left the city says they have stopped discussing Gbagbo. “We don’t even know what to say any more. But we can’t hold on much longer. Even here, in this town an hour from Abidjan, food is scarce and prices are rising. When people finish the little food they have stored, what will they do? There will be a famine here.”

In Abidjan, a flat of eggs, which used to cost about three dollars costs twelve. Small plastic bags of atieké, ground processed manioc ready to eat, that women prepare and sell on the street, used to cost about a dollar. Friday they were up to six dollars.

In one part of Koumassi, the pro-Ouattara soldiers that control the neighborhood open up the large stores, owned by Lebanese merchants, so the residents can take rice. “I don’t think it’s stealing,” said one resident. “This rice is labeled PAM (World Food Program). It was supposed to be given to the poor, but Monsieur Gbagbo’s government made deals with the merchants and sold it to them instead. The merchants re-packaged it and sold it. It was sent here for us but it wasn’t given to us. Well, now we need it to survive.”

Residents of this neighborhood, which is mixed politically--roughly 60% for Ouattara and 40% for Gbagbo—have heard that sometimes, underneath the sacks of rice, large piles of machine guns turn up. The soldiers take them.

“People keep saying the international community supports Ouattara,” said Salifou. “But what about the nationalcommunity? We support Ouattara. A majority of us voted for him. But we have been taken hostage by Gbagbo and his minority. We need help. We are worn out. People are dying. We just want peace.”

Down in his comfortable bunker, Gbagbo is protected from these realities by the president he refuses to recognize, who wants him taken alive. The United Nations says it will not be a party to any plan to starve him out. People of good intentions are always at a disadvantage with someone like Gbagbo, who talks out of one side of his mouth. He does not care how many Ivorians die, and the more chaos the better. It strengthens his hand. He still thinks there is a deal to be made, some way to roll his enemies in flour one more time and pop them into the oven. He seems to enjoy turning up the heat.

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