“What do you know about Cote D’Ivoire? You don’t know anything!,” was how President Laurent Gbagbo responded to my tough question about his foot dragging on the holding of elections.
I tried to smile and keep my calm.
But he went on: “We don’t ask this type of questions in Cote D’Ivoire”. I knew that before he told me. But we were in Doha, not in Abidjan!
The half hour interview included maybe a dozen insults on my person.
My producer, Katie Turner, had a tough task on her hands to clean up the interview of Gbagbo’s insulting words.
But when I read more on the man I learnt how he was known for his bullish behavior with “arrogant journalists”.
Gbagbo came across to me as an African third world dictator, not a polished democratic leader.
Actually I have to mention how he swept into the room when we were still fixing the lighting and setting up the camera frame. But he briskly took his seat and with a flourish of his hand he gave an abrupt order to the cameraman to start filming!
He forgot that cameramen are kings when they’re about to do their job!
The cameraman continued his preparation, and Gbagbo lost his patience.
There’s something of that briskness of character in the announcement by the Cote D’Ivoire military to suddenly close the country’s border and its airspace and bar foreign media from working yesterday.
It’s a dangerous development that barely falls short of a military coup. But not the traditional type of coup against a sitting president, it’s rather a coup on the future one.
The results of the presidential election showed the head of the opposition, Allassane Ouattara, as the winner. But Gbagbo has rejected those results.
The rejection came through the head of the Constitutional Council, said to be close to Gbagbo. He claimed that the Electoral Commission had tarried in announcing the results, and that there were ‘allegations’ of fraud committed by the opposition.
Now, this is perhaps one of those rare occasions in Africa where it’s the opposition that is supposedly rigging the elections while the regime plays the role of the victim and complains of fraud.
But the situation is really explosive in the particular case of Cote D’Ivoire. Less than a decade ago the country was engaged in a civil war over matters concerning democracy and elections.
Indeed it’s frightening when you look at the similarities between the situation now and the situation in 2000, shortly before the war broke out.
After a controversial military coup in 1999 a presidential election was held. The opposition leader at that time, Laurent Gbagbo, claimed victory. But the coup leader, Robert Guei, claimed he was the winner.
Violence broke out and the coup leader was ousted under popular pressure. Gbagbo was sworn in on a bloody wave of unrest and anger at the military.
Five years earlier the former president, Henry Konan Bedie, had decided to exclude the present presidential winner, Alassane Ouattara from running for the presidential post.
He saw to it that the National Assembly issued a law that prevented any person whose father or mother was not Ivorian from assuming the presidential duties. And he accused Ouattara of being only half Ivorian. Ouattara is from the predominantly Muslim north of Cote D’Ivoire.
His mother was allegedly an immigrant from Burkina Faso. Ouattara was thus banned from running for the 1995 elections.
A country divided
The complications of that decision and the feeling of marginalisation in the Muslim north developed into a civil war that divided the country in two a Muslim north controlled by rebels and a predominantly Christian south under the rule of Bedie and then of Gbagbo.
If you look at the political situation in Cote D’Ivoire in the last few years, you can easily see signs of history repeating itself. Gbabgo, who came to power through a controversial victory has clung to that power for years and delayed the holding of elections for five years blaming it on lack of national stability. That delay was illegal and amounted to a kind of coup on democracy.
And now after the electoral commission announced his northern rival Ouattara as the winner, Gbagbo has rejected the results claiming the election was rigged by the opposition. And he is using his military to shut down airports and borders and even airwaves.
The wounds of the civil war of 2002-2003 are not yet healed. Marginalisation and economic deprivation in the north is still unchanged. The victory of Ouattara indicates national fatigue with the regime of Gbagbo.
Cote D’Ivoire used to be the number one cocoa exporter in the world. Even during the dictatorial regime of the country’s founding president, Houphouët-Boigny, it boasted one of the healthiest economies in Africa.
The civil war has not only destroyed that economy but it has also turned Cote D’Ivoire into a sectarian and xenophobic nation. The semblance of calm during the years of Gbagbo’s rule could be misleading. The man arrived to power like a democrat but ruled more like a dictator.
He is known for his short temper and political opportunism. He was able to have both the African Union and the United Nations sanction his deals with the rebels in the name of national stability.
There’s a standing peace deal with the northern rebels or the “New Forces” as they call themselves. Thanks to the provisions of the deal, Gbagbo was able to postpone the election year after year claiming that the rebels did not disarm.
But the rebels finally disarmed and Gbagbo, who was a professor of history, finally accepted the candidacy of Ouattara, a technocrat economist.
Probably the historian Gbagbo had failed to predict that the economist Ouattara could win the election.
Now he is trying to take the country back to square one.
It’s shameful that two men who are both refined intellectuals and who claim to be nationalists should lead their nation into a potentially bloody conflict.
The latest deal with the rebels that was signed in Burkina Faso in 2007 could now be on the brink of collapse, due to potential dissatisfaction in the north towards’ the rejection of the election results.
Closing the country could make it difficult to gauge the reaction in the north. But the situation is far from reassuring.
Cote D’Ivoire is once again on the brink of chaos.