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I Coast-President Without a State

In an upside world, legitimate president of Ivory Coast is trying to govern while former president refuses to step down.

AP, Monday 13 Dec 2010
Ivory Coast
UN troops provide security at the Golf Hotel in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday 10 December 2010. (AP)
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From a hotel room just big enough to hold a bed and a desk, the man considered the legitimate president of Ivory Coast is trying to govern a troubled nation whose sitting president refuses to leave.

Alassane Ouattara does not have access to the presidential palace, so he holds Cabinet meetings in a tent on the hotel lawn. His administration has taken over the hotel manager's office, where the fax machine is used to communicate with embassies abroad. And the neighboring golf course's sloping fairways may soon house soldiers defecting from the army still controlled by incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo.

In the upside-down world that has taken root in this corner of Africa, 68-year-old Ouattara was declared winner of last month's presidential election by his country's election commission in an outcome certified by the United Nations. He was recognized as the legal president by the United States, the European Union, former colonial ruler France and the African Union.

Just about the only world leader who has not acknowledged his victory is the one occupying the presidential palace across town.

Despite near-universal condemnation, Gbagbo has turned his back on the world since the country's constitutional council led by one of his close advisers overturned the results and declared him the winner by throwing out the votes from provinces where Ouattara had won a majority. He imposed a curfew, sealed the country's borders and imposed a media blackout by cutting off foreign TV and radio channels.

He has ignored pleas to step down from close friends and political heavyweights alike, going so far as to refuse a telephone call last weekend from U.S. President Barack Obama, who was told that the sitting president was 'resting.'

"We find ourselves in an exceptional situation where the former president is refusing to leave the palace," said Guillaume Soro, who was prime minister under Gbagbo and is one of several members of his government who resigned in protest. "What I deplore is that in full view of the international community and of the country, the elected president is the one forced to live in a hotel."

After a decade of havoc, the election was supposed to set the country's broken bones after a draining civil war. Once one of the most prosperous on the continent, this balmy, tropical country halfway down Africa's western coast is now a shell of its former self. Women sell single eggs on the side of four-lane freeways designed to mirror those in Europe. University graduates unable to find work sell boxes of tissues while standing in the shadows of skyscrapers that are still the highest buildings in the region.

The risk of a return to war is real, and diplomats compare the standoff to a room whose floor is covered in gasoline where everyone is walking around with lighters. Coils of smoke rose from the skyline for days as angry protesters burned tires. The U.N. raised the security threat level, requiring the immediate evacuation of several hundred civilian employees.

Left behind are the more than 10,000 peacekeepers, some of whom have turned the Golf Hotel into a bunker, encircling it with coiled razor wire. White U.N. armored personnel carriers guard the entrance and visitors face security checks.

It is unclear what the international community can do if Gbagbo refuses to step down. If he does not go voluntarily, removing him may require military intervention, which most diplomats say is off the table.

But from inside his room on the hotel's first floor, Ouattara has started chipping away at Gbagbo's grip.

His administration sent letters to foreign governments asking them not to recognize Gbagbo's diplomats. The U.S.representative to the U.N., Susan Rice, told an Ivorian diplomat last Tuesday that he could attend a Security Council meeting about the crisis, but that his attendance did not indicate they considered his government legitimate.

And Ouattara, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund, has asked the regional central bank to freeze the administration's access. If they accept, the state coffers will be empty by the end of the month and Gbagbo's government will not be able to pay civil servant salaries, said Jean-Louis Billon, president of the Ivorian Chamber of Commerce.

On Friday, Billon said, the chamber sent a letter to local businesses telling them to not pay their taxes until it is clear which government will stand.

The vote has turned into a test case for democracy because it is the only time the U.N. has been asked by a country to certify the results of a presidential election, one of the conditions of a 2005 peace deal signed by both Ouattara and Gbagbo. The top U.N. official in Ivory Coast personally examined tally sheets from 20,000 precincts before validating the results of the election commission, which showed Ouattara had won by a nearly 10-point margin.

The bizarre sequence of events that followed could have been pulled from the pages of a novel. For days after the vote, the ruling party blocked the election commission from releasing results. When the commission's spokesman attempted to hold a press conference, members of the ruling party snatched the results from his hands and ripped them to shreds as the cameras rolled in a live broadcast on state TV.

Gbagbo's camp has said he believes the ultimate authority is the constitutional council and that he is the rightful winner. Members of his Cabinet have criticized foreign governments for interfering in state affairs.

Gbagbo came to power a decade ago, and has overstayed his legal term by five years, repeatedly rescheduling the election.

Even those who thought they knew him well say they are shocked by his stubbornness.

As soon as Japanese Ambassador Yoshifumi Okamura heard the results, he rushed to see Gbagbo to encourage him to cede power. The two are friends and Okamura was in the waiting room about to be ushered in when state TV showed the head of the constitutional council announcing he was handing victory to Gbagbo.

"So I say, 'OK Mr. President, this might be my last chance to persuade you to avoid the violence,"' Okamura said. "I tried to persuade him to behave in a statesman manner ... I tried my best. ... but I was not successful." Soro said he was in constant touch with his former boss, trying to persuade him to step down. When he didn't, Soro said he called him one last time.

"I told him, 'Mr. President. I'm a Christian. I believe in the splendor of truth. I cannot follow a lie. Mr.Ouattara has won,"' Soro said.
The next day, Dec. 4, Gbagbo went ahead with a shotgun inauguration, sending embassies a hurried invitation by fax that was neither signed nor dated. It was boycotted by nearly the entire diplomatic corps, who instead watched stunned as he took the oath of office on state TV.

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