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Gbagbo defies warnings to step down

Laurent Gbagbo is unflappable. As he smiles for the cameras and shakes the interviewers’ hands, offering them something to drink in his opulent presidential residence, it’s hard to believe that this is one of the world’s biggest pariahs.

The man who lost last month’s presidential election in Ivory Coast granted his first interviews since retaking office to two French newspapers and put his characteristic charisma on display.

“I’m the one who was elected president of Ivory Coast. That’s it,” he said. “C’est simple.”

Yet all is not well for Mr. Gbagbo. He has been asked to step down by a long list of the world’s most powerful countries and institutions, including the United States, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations.

“He doesn’t have a friend in the whole world,” a close adviser to his opponent Alassane Ouattara said. “Even his last friends like Equatorial Guinea have let him drop,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because he is not permitted to talk to the media.

The West African economic bloc ECOWAS took international reproach one step further on Christmas eve, threatening military action if Mr. Gbagbo doesn’t relinquish power.

A delegation consisting of the presidents of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone is due to arrive in Abidjan Tuesday to present him an ultimatum. This last president was not chosen by accident. The last time an ECOWAS military force intervened in one of its member states it was in Sierra Leone, led by a much-feared contingent of hardened Nigerian fighters.

But those who still believe in Mr. Gbagbo aren’t giving up. A suspiciously small demonstration was held outside of the Nigerian embassy in Abidjan on Monday, while the police, normally all too willing to break things up, watched docilely on the sidelines.

About 50 people gathered, not all of them able to speak English, carrying makeshift placards that read, “Let Ivorians solve Ivorian problems.”

In case the message wasn’t being heard back in Abuja, one woman told any camera find that if Nigerian soldiers arrive on Ivorian soil, “Nigerians here will be in danger.”

But Mr. Ouattara is also mobilizing his support, calling for civil disobedience and a general strike until Gbagbo steps down. While the general strike started timidly, and only certain neighbourhoods of Abidjan were quiet Monday, entire cities in the north of the country were ghost towns.

“Nothing’s moving here – not until Gbagbo’s gone,” said Yeo Zana, a nurse in the Ouattara stronghold city of Bouaké.

But in Gbagbo-friendly territory, such as his hometown of Gagnoa, businesses opened as usual, and no sign of the strike could be seen.

While it’s too early to tell whether the strike will have any effect, Mr. Ouattara is also pressing on several other fronts. He’s cut off Mr. Gbagbo’s access to the state treasury, jammed the state television signal, grounded his presidential plane and has begun replacing Mr. Gbagbo’s representatives abroad.

In Paris, Mr. Ouattara’s supporters occupied the Ivorian embassy, refusing to let Mr. Gbagbo’s ambassador get into his office. At the Basel-Mulhouse airport in Switzerland, Mr. Gbagbo’s presidential jet was prevented from taking off Sunday and looks unlikely to be leaving anytime soon.

In Brussels, the government confirmed that Mr. Ouattara’s ambassador had taken over all official functions. Mr. Ouattara’s people now sit in Ivory Coast’s seats at the UN, and they’ve got exclusive signing privileges on the state’s accounts at the West African Central Bank.

While Mr. Gbagbo was able to pay civil servant salaries just before Christmas, his access to funds is running out. The World Bank and the African Development Bank have pulled out of the country and one French diplomat said recently that Mr. Gbagbo only has enough reserves to keep the country running for three months.

Yet as his smiling face was plastered across French newspapers Monday morning, he gave no indication of being worried about his fate.

“It would be the first time that African countries go to war against one of their own because an election didn’t go well,” he told Le Figaro.

But Mr. Ouattara’s entourage is thrilled by the prospect of intervention.

“It’s not a bluff, the soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks,” Mr. Ouattara’s adviser said.

Mr. Gbagbo’s hold over the army has been tight since last month’s election, but that may begin to wane when soldiers start seeing the risk of not receiving next month’s pay. With this new threat of heavily armed Nigerians to contend with, his troops may think twice about supporting him right until the end.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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