|AP – Rebel soldiers |
the widely recognized winner …
On Friday, it seemed the nation of 21 million could slide either way. There were reports of rebels attacking several towns but retreating.
A day earlier, Alassane Ouattara, whose election victory last month over incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has international recognition, called on his supporters to seize the state TV headquarters in Abidjan, the capital.
Their advance got nowhere near the station, but a firefight broke out between rebels and security forces loyal to Gbagbo, the first significant clash between the two sides in six years. Rebels also briefly attacked government positions in the central town of Tiebissou on Thursday, marking a serious escalation in the conflict. The day's casualty toll given by various groups ranged from 9 to 30 shot and killed.
The former French colony is the world's leading cocoa producer, and skyscraper-lined Abidjan was once known as the Paris of West Africa. Then came a 2002-2003 civil war that divided it in two. The election was supposed to open a new chapter, except that the loser has defied international pressure to step down.
The harsh crackdown by police and troops backing Gbagbo drew further sweeping condemnation, and the U.S. and other nations gave Gbagbo an ultimatum: Leave Ivory Coast within days or face travel and financial sanctions.
But, despite having the outside world on his side, Ouattara is still "far from forcing Gbagbo from power," said Frederic Abe, a researcher with the Abidjan-based Center for Research and Action in Peace.
And peace seems further away than ever.
The civil war left the rebels in control of most of the north. A 2007 peace deal reunited the nation in theory and set the stage for elections that had been delayed repeatedly.
In reality, though, neither side was ready for the vote. The rebels never disarmed, and Gbagbo — who had managed to stay in power since his mandate expired in 2005 citing emergency clauses in the constitution — was clearly not ready to lose.
Although Ouattara's victory has been recognized by many foreign governments, Gbagbo fully controls the army and state media. He occupies the presidential palace and his loyalists hold most Cabinet ministries. Ouattara, by contrast, is trying to govern from a tiny hotel room in a compound protected by 800 U.N. peacekeepers.
From here, the crisis could move in any direction.
A power-sharing deal is one possibility, and deputy U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq has said Gbagbo wants to talk to Ouattara about it.
But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was firm Friday in insisting Gbagbo step aside.
"Any other outcome would make a mockery of democracy and the rule of law," Ban said. "There was a clear winner. There is no other option." He threatened that those responsible for loss of life "will be held accountable."
His warning was echoed by U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "Time is running out," he said. "The United States is prepared to impose targeted sanctions individually and in concert with our partners on President Gbagbo, his immediate family and his inner circle should he continue to illegitimately cling to power."
But sanctions have typically failed to reverse illegal power grabs in Africa in the past.
Delegations from the African Union and the Economic Community Of West African States are due in Abidjan soon and they face the same obstacles in trying to persuade Gbagbo to yield.
Ouattara is also trying to hamper Gbagbo's ability to pay civil servants, the army and the daily operating costs of government. Last week, he wrote to the regional central bank asking them to block funds. The bank has yet to respond.
In the meantime, the country is in fear and bracing for more violence. The U.N. refugee agency says at least 3,700 people have fled to neighboring Liberia and Guinea.
Ouattara called for more demonstrations Friday, but Abidjan was mostly calm.
Thursday's violence was the first firefight between the two sides since 2004, said Christian Bouquet, an Ivory Coast demographer and geography professor at France's University of Bordeaux II.
It was also a big setback for the goal of integrating rebel and government forces into a new 5,000-strong force — something that was supposed to happen shortly after the runoff vote on Nov. 28. Ahead of the vote, both sides carried out mixed patrols in the northern town of Korhogo, "but this rapprochement imploded between the two rounds" of voting, Bouquet said.
As part of the peace effort, both sides deployed forces in each other's territory, but they pulled back immediately after the runoff began turning sour.
Gbagbo's bid to hold on to power is steeped in irony. During the country's last election in 2000, tens of thousands of young militants launched protests that swept Gbagbo to power when his rival tried to steal the vote.
Pitman reported from Dakar, Senegal.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press West Africa Bureau Chief Todd Pitman has covered the region for more than a decade.