Laurent Gbagbo, like his rival Alassane Ouattara, formally entered the political arena in 1990  [AFP]

Laurent Gbagbo, president of Cote d'Ivoire since 2000, has seen his country plunged into violence after he refused to accept defeat in last year's election.

The 66-year-old former history professor, who spent years fighting for democracy and human rights as part of the opposition, lost to Alassane Ouattara in the November 2010 poll after a decade in power.

Gbagbo, from the south of the country, began his career as a history teacher but was jailed for two years for "subversive" teachings.

After getting involved in the trade union movement through a teachers' strike in the early 1980s, Gbagbo went into exile in France, where he set up the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).

He went into politics in 1990 when a multiparty system was introduced in the west African nation, allowing him to unsuccessfully run against Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Cote d'Ivoire's president and independence leader.

But he had to wait another decade before assuming power, when he won in an election which had barred Ouattara and another candidate, Henri Konon Bedie, from entering.

In 2002 Gbagbo survived an attempted military coup, but the event triggered a civil war that left the country fragmented between the rebel-held north and government-held south.

In the meantime the president, whose supporters were accused of carrying out xenophobic attacks against immigrants and those from the north, decided not to hold fresh elections in 2005, when his term came to an end, saying the country was not ready.

A peace accord and power sharing deal was eventually signed between Gbagbo and Guillaume Soro, commander of the rebels, in 2007. The 2010 poll was supposed to put Cote d'Ivoire back on the path of democracy.

Gbagbo beat Ouattara in the first round of the election, but after the second and final round, the country’s electoral commission declared Gbagbo the loser and handed victory to Ouattara.

However the country’s constitutional court overturned the electoral commission's result, declaring Gbagbo the winner, despite the UN and the international community recognising Ouattara as the legitimate winner.

The political stalemate led to months of diplomatic pressure, including sanctions, to get Gbagbo to stand down, but when he refused the two leaders turned to violence.

Their armies have fought for control of the country in a conflict that has gone on for months and killed hundreds of Ivorians.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies