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Geopolitics

Digging In: Inside Laurent Gbagbo's Last Stand In The Ivory Coast

Counted out just a week ago, see up close how the Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo has held on despite much of his country and virtually all the world stacked against him. Amongst his weapons: his Christian faith, a mercurial wife and a canny surviva

A burned out car in Abidjan earlier this year
A burned out car in Abidjan earlier this year
Christophe Boltanski

ABIDJAN - There was no time to waste: the battle of Abidjan was ready to start, and Alassane Ouattara, the democratically elected president, was set to shut down all land and air borders. So a flight was scheduled to take the former first lady to Cotonou, where she recently bought an ocean-side villa. But when the moment came for her to board the plane, she refused. Madame Gbago declared that she wanted to fight until the end.

The evening before, Laurent Gbagbo had reunited, as he'd done countless times, all his closest military cronies -- General Philippe Mangou, chief of staff of the armed forces, General Guiai Bi Poin, head of the CECOS security operations center, and General Bruno Dogbo Blé, leader of the elite Republican Guard. A handful of loyal politicians was also on hand. According to a participant, some of Gbagbo's less optimistic loyalists pleaded in favor of the African Union's plan (adopted on March 10), which called for the former ruler's departure and the creation of a national unity government that would include his party, the Popular Ivory Front (FPI). Once more, the hardliners, headed by Simone Gbagbo, convinced the others to stay.

It would thus seem that Mr. and Mrs. Gbagbo are ready to stand united against all, to put the country through fire and sword as they fight to the very last bullet. Their stubbornness seems so pointless, so vain. Defections around them are multiplying. The former rebels -- who had fled at the very first sign of opposition only three months before -- have now been able to conquer the rest of the country in only four days, barely having to shoot a single bullet. They are extremely well equipped, and enjoy the ever more overt support from the international community.

Recently, some members of the regular army have begun to join Ouattara's side. The commander of the land forces Detho Leto publicly enjoined his troops to "obey the orders of the democratically elected president Alassane Dramane Ouattara." Even Philippe Mangou, a pillar of the regime, deserted soon after leaving that dramatic meeting with Gbagbo.

"Simone would rather die as a martyr, in the mystical sense of the word," says a diplomat. As a fighter and former Marxist and fervent evangelist, she sees the war in the Ivory Coast as a battle between Christianity and Islam, the good and the bad personified by Ouattara and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "God wanted my husband to be elected," she cried last December, just after the Constitutional Council overturned earlier poll results and declared Gbagbo the winner. But has her husband, a born-again Christian, been touched by a divine flame too?

"His morale couldn't be higher," says Gbagbo's counselor for religious affairs, Zahiri Ziki. He called the former president right as Ouattara's forces were launching their first assault against the capital. "I told him that I was praying for God to protect the presidential residence," recalls Ziki. "The sun had already set, but there was light outside as if it was noontime. It was a sign from heaven. He told me: ‘Good job.""

Could Laurent Gbagbo see himself as a holy warrior? His old friend Guy Labertit, a center-left French political insider and Africa expert, strongly rejects this "grotesque image of a crazy man in charge of some kind of sect. He is a very rational person. But he will never leave unless on his own terms, so I wouldn't rule out a tragic end."

A master at buying time

This man who seems ready to watch his country go to ruin considers himself the father of the "second Ivorian independence" and likes to be compared with the first Congolese national hero, Patrice Lumumba, who was ultimately assassinated.

Alassane Ouattara was right when he said that Gbagbo will never relinquish power unless forced to do so. All the meetings that Gbagbo has had with various African mediators have only served to buy him time, a game at which he is an expert. The man managed, after all, to somehow stay in power for five years more than he should have. "The baker," as he's called for "rolling in flour" all his adversaries, is now hoping to cook his opponents yet again.

But time no longer plays in his favor. The man in charge of the "Golf Hotel Republic" seized the relative calm provided by the Arab uprisings to prepare his offensive. He deftly knew how to galvanize the former rebels who have been controlling the northern part of the country since 2002. "They had gone into doing business a long time ago," says a diplomat. But now they were given vehicles, heavy machine guns and munitions. "All their pick-ups and canons are brand new," says a military expert. According to several sources, all the equipment was supplied by Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

Instead of a direct intervention, the countries most hostile to Gbagbo's rule decided to help Ouattara form the embryo of an army. If it is impossible to know whether they also provide Ouattara with military advice, one thing is sure: in this war of shadows, the elected president has overwhelming support. The United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), which is supposed to impose an arms embargo for all the fighting parties, has been turning a blind eye on the convoys crossing the northern border of the country. "It is likely that the British and French services provided Ouattara with intelligence information," says a former employee at the Elysée.

In the capital Abidjan, a very mysterious "invisible commando" has infiltrated the Abobo neighborhood and started harassing Gbagbo's Security and Defence Forces (FDS). Its chief is no other than Ibrahim Coulibaly, also known as I.B., a former Ivorian army sergeant convicted in France for an attempted coup against Laurent Gbagbo in 2003 (the verdict has recently been repealed). How did I.B. manage to resurface again at the head of hundreds of fighters in Abidjan? "The French must have put him back in the game," thinks Antoine Glaser, the former director of the African magazine La Lettre du Continent. "Everything was incredibly well orchestrated, both militarily and diplomatically."

All means necessary

On March 28, the pro-Ouattara forces now called the "Republican Forces' launched several perfectly simultaneous attacks from east to west. Two days later, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1975. Drafted by France and Nigeria, the text calls for Gbagbo's resignation, introduces an asset freeze, and authorizes UNOCI to use "all means necessary to carry out its mandate to protect civilians, (…) including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population."

Emboldened by this international support, the Republican Forces in their pick-up trucks were able to advance at breakneck speed along the country's roads without encountering any real opposition. They conquered Bondoukou and Abengourou on the border with Ghana, and then the capital Yamoussoukro, San Pedro – the largest cacao port in the world -- and also Duékoué, a city right in the middle of the region inhabited by the Bété, Laurent Gbagbo's ethnic group. Between 330 and 1,000 have been killed in recent fighting, according to the UN and other international organizations. The two parties blame each other for the death toll.

As Ouattara's army advances, numerous militiamen and police join, while others abandon their uniforms and flee. The fact that they have not been paid for some time now gives them even less reasons to keep on fighting. Because of the paralysis imposed by the international community on the Ivorian banks, wages can only be paid in cash in Abidjan. The most experienced forces were called in to the economic capital in order to prepare the final battle.

During the night from March 31 to April 1, the victory seemed within reach for the former rebels. But the enemy continues to resist. Laurent Gbagbo can still count on the Republican Guard and the Cecos security forces. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men -- loyal and highly motivated soldiers, well equipped, often recruited on a tribal basis -- are still willing to stick to their leader, against all odds. "The people on Gbagbo's side will fight until the end -- most feel that they have nothing to lose," says one of his former advisers. Laurent Gbagbo has taught them well.

Photo - Stefan Meisal

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