While international pressure and isolation have yet to force Laurent Gbagbo’s departure, his rival Alassane Ouattara is now looking to end Côte d‘Ivoire's political impasse by taking the battle for control to the streets.
With Ouattara recognized in Africa and beyond as the victor in the 28 November presidential run-off, his camp has called for a mass demonstration on 16 December, prompting warnings of a dangerous collision between the two sides.
Lamenting the impasse’s “catastrophic” impact on the country and saying “the legal and legitimate government” cannot just stand by, Ouattara's Prime Minister Soro Guillaume said on 13 December that the Ouattara government would install its director of state television and begin working in ministerial offices by the end of the week. The pro-Ouattara Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Democratie et la Paix (RHDP) has called on Ivoirians to march in support of the move.
People from across the country in the past three days have been boarding busses headed to the economic capital Abidjan. But there were also reports of the army, which officially backs Gbagbo, blocking some would-be demonstrators from moving south. The call is for a “peaceful march”, residents of the north told IRIN, but most worry violence is inevitable.
“This morning [15 December] Ouattara militants clashed with police,” said a youth in the central city of Yamoussoukro, where people from the north are gathering before heading to Abidjan.
“I just saw members of the Republican Guard coming out of their camp; they are circulating in the city. I don’t know what’s going on but it looks as if things are going to heat up.”
A 15 December UN statement said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "deeply concerned" about the continued stalemate. "The situation is taking a worrying turn with unfolding events that could lead to widespread violence," his spokesperson said. The UN Secretary-General warned against any actions that would provoke violence, "which could have unpredictable consequences, including reigniting civil war".
“The risk for violence is extremely high,” Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN. “Enough blood has already been spilled on the streets of Abidjan.”
The RHDP call for protests is a shift from earlier on in the political crisis, when according to supporters in Abidjan the Ouattara camp called on backers to stand by and remain calm after the Gbagbo camp overturned election results that had put Ouattara on top.
Explaining the apparent shift in tactics, Albert Mabri, RHDP spokesperson and Ouattara advisor, told IRIN: “We thought [Gbagbo] would listen to reason. He won't budge.”
The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, have suspended Côte d’Ivoire, calling on Gbagbo to leave. The European Union is planning sanctions on Gbagbo and several of his most prominent associates.
But Ouattara backers say the time has come for a genuine show of strength. “We the elected government can no longer simply stand by,” Mabri said. “Taking to the streets is the only solution now."
The army on 15 December said it would blame the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) for any violence resulting from demonstrations. The UN has said it recognizes Ouattara as president and UN troops have been guarding the Abidjan hotel where Ouattara and his government are based.
Photo: Monica Mark/IRIN
|UN soldiers standing near a Laurent Gbagbo campaign billboard in Abidjan|
Youth groups loyal to Gbagbo have reportedly announced plans to hold a sit-in in front of UNOCI's Abidjan headquarters the same day as the RHDP march.
“It will be a critical day for the UN in Côte d’Ivoire,” said Rinaldo Depagne, senior analyst with International Crisis Group. “Gbagbo will test them.”
Analysts said the Ouattara camp knows time is on Gbagbo’s side.
“The call for street protests was the foreseeable next step [with Gbagbo refusing to budge], and clearly one that’s far more dangerous,” political analyst and independent consultant Gilles Yabi told IRIN.
Yabi noted parallels with the situation in March 2004, when opposition parties staged a march in defiance of an official ban leading to scenes of violence and heavy casualties, with security forces and Gbagbo supporters accused of killing civilians.
Some Ivoirians say they are deeply disappointed by the call for protests, which they fear will end in bloodshed.
“Forcing Gbagbo out will not be easy, but I am for taking the diplomatic route, even if this means a longer impasse and therefore longer suffering for the people,” said Issouf, a vendor in the northern city of Odienné. “If we force things there will be a bloodbath. There will be just too many victims.”
Some observers in Abidjan are wary of what they see as a dangerous stand-off. One youth from Abidjan's Yopougon neighbourhood told IRIN: “I doubt this march will be massive because [after so much conflict] very few Ivoirians would sacrifice life and limb for a political leader, whoever it is. Of course I want Alassane to take his rightful place as president, but I’d rather see the United Nations sort this out so as to spare Ivoirian lives.” However, he confirmed that many of many of his friends said they were ready to die for the cause.
Aboubakar Koné, who joined the rebels after the 2002 uprising, told IRIN from Yamoussoukro: “Tonight we will sleep here and tomorrow morning we will head to Abidjan to march.”
He added: “If we are called on to take up Kalashnikovs again, count me in.”
A western diplomat who requested anonymity said he had not heard of any statements on the march from the diplomatic community. “This suggests the view among diplomats here is that demonstrations are a legitimate form of protest.”
He noted Gbagbo’s camp has been somewhat “restrained” of late. “At the same time it’s difficult to predict. My gut tells me things will get violent.”
Ouattara’s camp appears to be banking on support within the army. “We sincerely hope the army will not become involved in this,” RHDP spokesperson Mabri told IRIN. “But even so, we know the majority of soldiers voted for Ouattara. We know they are in the majority on our side. The legality of asking people to take to the streets is irrefutable. We are not asking them to run riots, just to exercise their rights."