Ivory Coast Polarized By Political Standoff
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now we go to the Ivory Coast, on the west coast of Africa, where a political crisis there is threatening to destabilize the region. Following disputed elections there last month, two rival presidents are now claiming to be in charge of the country. Initial mediation efforts failed to break the impasse, but now there's concern that the standoff threatens to reignite violence that once destabilized the country following a rebellion in 2002 that could spread throughout the region.
For the latest, we've called upon NPR's west Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's been reporting from the city of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, and she's joining us by phone from there. Ofeibea, thanks so much for joining us once again.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings, and I hope I'm on the quality line. I should be on the ISDN line now.
MARTIN: You sound terrific. Just tell us, please, if you would, who are the two candidates, and what's been happening over the last couple of days?
QUIST-ARCTON: The incumbent president over the past 10 years is Laurent Gbagbo. He was voted in - he was voted in I say but he was almost propelled by street protests 10 years ago when he felt he had been cheated of election victory by a military leader here in Ivory Coast. He's a history professor, formerly at the university.
And his presidential challenger is Alassane Ouattara, an international economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund and who was the governor of the French West African Bank. He has been trying to become president of Ivory Coast, but there haven't been elections for the past decade. So those are the two who faced off on November 28th.
MARTIN: Was there any international body that has overseen the elections that certified these results?
QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely. There's a U.N. peacekeeping force here, a force of 9,500. And as part of a 2007 peace deal signed by both Gbagbo and Ouattara, the U.N. was detailed to certify and endorse the elections. Now, that is what the U.N. did. Last Friday, when the secretary general special envoy here, Young-Jin Choi, said Alassane Ouattara is the winner of these elections. That was after the independent electoral commission had proclaimed him the winner on the Thursday.
MARTIN: And as you told us, the incumbent president has refused to accept the results and declaring victory himself. Now, you've been out on the streets of Abidjan, where there have been demonstrations. Many people are not happy with the situation, as one could expect. I just want to play a short clip of what one person told you. Here it is.
Unidentified Man: I don't know. I don't know. I feel like it's a nightmare, you know. People are getting tired now and we don't know when it's going to end. It looks like we're going to stay in this mess for months and months. And it's a nightmare. It's a nightmare.
MARTIN: What is the latest out there on the streets right now? What's the mood right now?
QUIST-ARCTON: Well, things have picked up a bit, shops are opening tentatively, businesses and banks, children are back in school. But for four or five days, this was a very jittery city, Abidjan and other parts of Ivory Coast, as people waited first for the election results. And then when this who won, who didn't win happened, people were scared, because on the Friday, the following day after Ouattara had been proclaimed the winner by the electoral commission, the Constitutional Council, and that's the legal body that is meant to sign off on the elections, declared Laurent Gbagbo the winner. So, there was total confusion.
Now, it has to be said that the head of the Constitutional Council is an ally of Laurent Gbagbo. So, you have the White House, the United Nations secretary-general, the economic community of West African states, a former colonial power of France, the European community, all saying Ouattara won these elections and now it's time for Laurent Gbagbo to step down.
MARTIN: Now, I do have a short clip of what P.J. Crowley, the United States undersecretary for public affairs, had to say about this. I'll play that, just so people get a flavor of the conversation that's going on. Here it is.
Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (U.S. Undersecretary for Public Affairs): We obviously are concerned about it. This is a situation where a Democratic transition is long overdue. The current president is five years past the end of his actual tour. There has been an election. The election has been described as Democratic. The results have been announced. And now it's time for the leadership in Ivory Coast to recognize those results and work towards a peaceful transition in Cote d'lvoire.
MARTIN: OK. But what is the international community actually prepared to do? Is there any sense of that?
QUIST-ARCTON: So that is the question, of course, Michel, because it's all well and good to say you back Alassane Ouattara. But he is, you know, he swore himself in, so to speak. He handed in an oath of office on Saturday, the same day that Laurent Gbagbo was sworn in with pomp and ceremony at the presidential palace. But Alassane Ouattara is at a hotel guarded by U.N. peacekeepers and tanks. And that's where he's formed his government. That's where he announced that he had a new prime minister.
But what can he actually do? So, we'll have to see what the international community and the regional community - because ECOWAS, Economic Community of West African States, has also said that Gbagbo must step down and that Ouattara is the duly and legitimately elected president. Everybody is waiting. But for now Laurent Gbagbo is certainly digging in his heels. He says he doesn't want to see any international interference.
MARTIN: What is Gbagbo saying to justify his conduct here? You know, Ouattara has the support, obviously, as you just told us, of the international community, a number of international players, but Gbagbo the incumbent has the backing of the military. So, what is he saying? What is his public posture here?
QUIST-ARCTON: The backing of the military and, of course, he controls the state airwaves and the state media. So day in, day out, endlessly we are seeing images of Gbagbo's other swearing in at the presidential palace. We're hearing analysts and all sorts railing at the international community, at the U.N., at foreign journalists, saying that we're not the people who are to announce election results. This is a sovereign country and he will defend Ivory Coast sovereignty at all cost.
He says, according to the constitution, and the electoral code, it's the constitutional court that decides who's the winner. They've said he's the winner. Everybody else says no.
MARTIN: Forgive me, Ofeibea, we only have 30 seconds. Is the threat of civil war, then, very real?
QUIST-ARCTON: Oh yes. Civil war, perhaps that's too - but certainly a long drawn out mediation because mediators have been here. But with always in the back of everybody's mind, the fact that this was a divided country between north and south, the rebels are still in control of the north, and they are favor racketing. They're saying if Gbagbo doesn't go, they're going to act, without specifying.
MARTIN: Well, I know you'll keep apprized of the situation. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's west Africa correspondent. She was with us from Abidjan in Ivory Coast. Ofeibea, thank you so much.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.
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