Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo Falls—To pity or not to pity? – Asks Dr Michael J.K. Bokor

When I saw the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo in “Joe Singlet” and sweating profusely on the BBC and Euro News channels a short while ago, I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep. I was torn between both emotional points but managed to heave a sigh (itself, not definitively in support or condemnation of him). The sad end of Gbagbo’s Presidency raises very serious questions that will be difficult to answer conclusively. Can power corrupt so absolutely as to make a politician willingly destroy himself and his country?

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Many will quickly blame Gbagbo for boxing himself to this unfortunate sequel, which casts a huge slur over the real motives of the African politician. How finally can a hero turn into a villain? This sad end to his political life is the result of a terrible miscalculation for which he must be gritting his teeth in anguish and a belated show of remorse now that he has been caged to await further physical pain, mental agony, and total disgrace. His empty bravado will land him where despicable characters end up.

The circumstances culminating into Gbagbo’s capture make his case a terrible one. It seems the verdict has already been passed against him. Many lives have been lost as a result of his intransigence and his rival’s dogged determination to replace him as the Ivory Coast’s President. Now that he is at the losing end, he will surely kiss the dust. The bell is tolling loudly and clearly and the sound must be jarring in his ears already.

The intricate web in which Gbagbo had been caught all these years (since the break-up of the country into two under his watch—with the rebel forces controlling the Muslim-dominated north and he in charge of the Christian-animist south) was too thick for him to free himself from. But he added more fuel to this inferno and is now caught up in it to be consumed.

Now that the French forces have physically aided the Ouattara forces to capture Gbagbo and spirit him away to Ouattara’s camp at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, we can only guess what he will be put through next.

The images that I saw on the TV channels bespoke much of the psychological and physical torture (not to mention the moral aspects) that he has already gone through. What lies ahead of him is predictable—he will be either put on trial in his own country or ferried to the International Criminal Court at the Hague to face multiple charges from which he can hardly extricate himself. He will add to Charles Taylor’s deplorable example to confirm the notoriety of the African politician.

Gbagbo can’t say that he didn’t expect this eventuality. He knew that he was drowning and just holding on to a straw; but like the over-confident, power-hungry African politician, he chose to defy the odds. He had every opportunity to prevent his doom or to redeem himself, knowing very well the impregnable forces that were arrayed against him would not relent in their push to oust him from power. Once the United Nations turned its back against him, to be followed by powerful countries in the West and others in Africa, he should have seen the writing on the wall to leave the scene without putting up this kind of useless fight whose outcome for him is damning. But he chose otherwise and is now a sad case.

What might have steeled Gbagbo’s resolve to go thus far? Was he so naïve as to repose his trust and confidence in his security forces, even at the time that most of them had deserted him in droves? Or was he following the wrong-headed advisers surrounding him and looking for the opportunity to make personal gains out of his plight? Or was he looking up to his so-called Young Patriots or trusted military generals, trusting his chariots and horses instead?

Gbagbo’s end has definitely come, but it has come with disturbing concerns. The harm done to the Ivory Coast by this Gbagbo-Ouattara impasse is unquantifiable. At the economic front, the country has already lost much revenue as a result of the sanctions on cocoa exports and the malfunctioning of economic institutions within the period. The country’s debt situation will compound and the new government has no other option but to go pan-handling in the international donor community. With Ouattara’s personal good standing before the IMF, any plea he makes for loans should hit willing ears; but that assistance will not come gratis.

The humanitarian crisis resulting from this imbroglio will not be resolved soon. It means that the destabilized Ivorian system cannot get back to normalcy soon. We hope that the speed with which the French establishment moved in to incapacitate Gbagbo will inform any future decision and consequent action to help the country solve its internal humanitarian problems or in rebuilding itself.

The circumstances surrounding the exit of Gbagbo suggest a complete dislocation of the Ivorian social, ethnic, and military establishment as well. The seed of mistrust or distrust that had been sown since the country split into two about nine years ago will definitely grow into a destructive force to haunt the country.

Of all, the military aspect raises serious concerns. Granted that the Republican Front that launched the lightning assault on the Ivorian regular security set-up to prepare the grounds for the removal of Gbagbo from office is well-established on the ground, it is already clear that two parallel security systems are in contention in the country. Ouattara will have a tedious task streamlining this security situation.

Indeed, it is not immediately clear what plans there may be for elements of the Republican Front to be resettled smoothly. Whether these rebel forces will be integrated into the regular security set-up or whether the latter will be drastically purged to remove the pro-Gbagbo elements whose resistance or support for Gbagbo has torn the country apart all this while is a major problem. Any move to “clean” the military establishment may worsen the situation further, especially if ethnicity becomes a major consideration.

Unless a proper approach is adopted toward solving this aspect of the Ivorian crisis, the country risks facing serious perennial security problems when Ouattara assumes office. As the situation is now, some forms of armed resistance or selective sabotage may emerge to create immediate problems for the new administration. Such armed resistance may be difficult to neutralize, which means that the Ivory Coast will experience the very problems endangering Liberia and Sierra Leone. The likelihood is high that banditry will become the order of the day and it is may spread to other parts of the West African sub-region.
The involvement of the UN and the French forces in this final show-down is regrettable but inevitable. In one sense, the extent to which the pro-Gbagbo forces had carried their resistance was alarming. By going out of their way to attack the resistance of members of the diplomatic corps as well as the Hotel Golf housing Ouattara (and causing uncontrollable security problems), the pro-Gbagbo forces had become too brazen and needed to be stopped in their stride to avert a deterioration of the situation.

In another sense, though, it is unacceptable for the French ground troops to take sides and lead the pro-Ouattara forces to the residence where the final assault was made on Gbagbo to whisk him out of the bunker that had sheltered him all this while. By their complicity, the French troops (indeed the entire French establishment in Paris) had acted in too daring a manner to violate the territorial integrity of a sovereign state.

By crippling Gbagbo and virtually paving the way for Ouattara to be installed in office as the Ivorian President, the French have played a role that is not only reminiscent of interference in the internal affairs of the country but which will have unfortunate repercussions. Such a President may not be readily welcomed by those who are wary of foreign domination. Ouattara seems to be carrying a difficult baggage, having already aroused suspicion of being a sympathizer of the West, unlike Gbagbo.

Although acclaimed as the “internationally recognized” winner of the November elections (and, thus, the President-elect of the Ivory Coast), Ouattara’s push for the Presidency is not without its associated concerns.

At the larger level, then, the question to ponder is troubling. Is it legitimate for Ouattara to be forcibly installed in office through the military option as is likely to be the case now that his nemesis has been reduced to an object of public ridicule?

The main problems for the Ivory Coast now are legitimacy for a Ouattara Presidency and eventual national stability and integration. We can’t overlook the fact that Gbagbo has a huge following in that country and with his forcible removal from office, his supporters will not automatically switch to Ouattara’s side. They will be difficult to persuade for their trust, allegiance, and fullest cooperation to run the affairs of the country.

The factors that turned those people against Ouattara will not evaporate just because Gbagbo has now been caged. Those who considered him as a Burkinabe citizen will stick to their disdain for him and may do acts likely to frustrate his administration. The immediate tasks facing the new leader are daunting and, unless he sets out to allay fears and suspicions, he will end up hating to be the President of such a divided country.

Undoubtedly, the Ivorian event is not an encouraging precedent, especially considering the overarching military role played by France. Of course, France has always regarded the Ivory Coast as its “pet” and, through complicated mechanisms, continues to maintain its physical presence through its military base and direct involvement in the country’s economic life.

By ending Gbagbo’s Presidency this way, the UN, French, and Ouattara’s forces, however, seem to have saved the African Union and the ECOWAS from an embarrassment after faltering in efforts to resolve the crisis. Neither the so-called diplomatic missions nor the proposed military option could materialize hitherto. Thus, the forcible removal of Gbagbo is a blessing in disguise, some may argue. Left alone to resolve this crisis, the AU or ECOWAS might take ages to do so. In the interim, many unpleasant happenings could have worsened the situation.

By the end of the day, public reaction to the situation will be as divided as the country itself has been all these years. Supporters of Ouattara will rush into a frenzied celebration even if mindless of the thorny issues that lie behind their victory over the pro-Gbagbo forces. The latter will have no other option but to moan at the loss, even if they may decide on a new course of action to take in retaliation. The implications of this divided response to today’s spectacle is frightening enough for the world to use as a clarion call to rally behind the Ivory Coast and help it re-engineer itself so as not to become one of the African problem-children for the world.

For me, Gbagbo’s fall from grace to grass is not strange or anything extra-ordinary; nor is it unnerving. It is the inevitable end of someone who is blinded by his own self-importance and over-ambition. He called the tune for his political demise long ago when he decided to swim against the current and is now where he is as a result. It is the inevitable outcome of his senseless intransigence and greed for political power even when indications are clear that after 10 years in office, he is no more the darling of the ordinary Ivorian citizens whose problems of existence continue to mount day-in-day-out despite all the sacrifices that they continue to make.

Gbagbo’s plight should forewarn other African leaders who think that without them, their countries will fade away from the map. There are many of Gbagbo’s type who must now be alarmed at the turn of events. The earlier they listen to reason to respect constitutionally established mechanisms for assuming and ceding power, the better chances are that they will live their lives in peace when they reach the end of their legally allowable tenure in office. What has brought Gbagbo down to his knees can happen to any of them. Let this Gbagbo case be the lesson they’ve been looking for all these years.