Political Tensions Continue To Boil In Ivory Coast

The international community is intensifying pressure on Ivory Coast's incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo to step down. Gbagbo has been clinging to power in the West African nation after losing a run-off election late last month, according to the country's election commission. The World Bank has frozen loans to the Ivory Coast and France is urging its citizens there to leave immediately amid fears of a return to bloody civil war. Host Michel Martin speaks with Associated Press reporter Marco Chown Oved and head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Ivory Coast, Y-J Choi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

On the program today, we'll be talking about making up a multicultural holiday menu that won't give you heartburn. We're talking with top chef Kevin Sbraga, and then we'll talk about creative holiday drinks to wash it all down. We'll also focus on the record-breaking run of the Connecticut Women's basketball team. That is later.

But we begin today with a much more serious matter of the turmoil in the West African nation of the Ivory Coast, which finds itself standing on the brink of a return to civil war, according to the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

We'll hear from the head of the U.N. operation in the Ivory Coast in just a few minutes. A tense political standoff there has intensified since a November 28th runoff election. There, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo lost his bid for reelection, according to the country's election commission, but he has refused to step down.

The World Bank has since frozen loans to the country. France is urging its citizens there to leave immediately. The African Union and most of the international community is standing firm against Gbagbo. This is White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. This is how he put it this week.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): That election was clear. Its result was clear and it's time for him to go.

MARTIN: But Mr. Gbagbo says the international community has declared war on the Ivory Coast and he has demanded the United Nations leave. The U.N. has responded by extending its mandate there for another six months. We wanted to talk more about the situation there. So, first, we're going to go to Associated Press reporter Marco Chown Oved. He's in Abidjan. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MARCO CHOWN OVED (Reporter, Associated Press): Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I understand, though, that you along with other foreign journalists are on the move, that many journalists have been threatened. Is that kind of indicative of the general mood there?

Mr. OVED: Well, yes. I mean, what we've seen largely across the country is that people are afraid to wear their political allegiances on their sleeves and even those of us who are trying to be neutral, including the U.N. and foreign journalists were being portrayed as if we're not openly supporting Gbagbo, we're being portrayed as supporting the rebellion. It's a kind of, you're either with us or against us attitude.

MARTIN: Now, Gbagbo last night announced that he was ready to meet with his rival, Alassane Ouattara, to negotiate an end to the crisis. Has there been any response?

Mr. OVED: Well, this is an idea he's been floating for some time. His foreign minister, who used to be the country's representative at the United Nations in New York, he's been trying sort of back channels and diplomatic channels for more than a week now to get negotiations started up. Of course they've had two different mediators come in. One from the African Union, Jean Ping, another from South Africa, Evelyn Becky(ph), to try and negotiate a way out of this crisis.

But what we're seeing here is, for the first time, the United Nations is really standing firm. There is no opportunity to negotiate the Cote D'Ivoire election was clear cut. Mr. Gbagbo, who lost the election, they say. And that there is no opportunity to negotiate any sort of power sharing deal.

I think that what we're seeing now is Gbagbo's camp floating this idea because there's precedent in Kenya in 2007, in Zimbabwe. Both the leaders there, the incumbent presidents, Robert Mugabe and Mwai Kibaki, were able to stay in power, negotiate some sort of power-sharing deal after the international community widely believed that they lost these elections.

So I think Gbagbo is trying to - and perhaps negotiate his best option, which would be some sort of power-sharing deal. But, like I said, the difference between Kenya and Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast is that in Ivory Coast this is the first time we've seen the United Nations participate from A to Z in the election. They supervised every single vote. They counted every single vote themselves.

So this isn't a question of perhaps there were several irregularities. The U.N. has said, no, we have gone through this election vote by vote and we're certifying Ouattara as the elected leader, and that's not a negotiable result.

MARTIN: I think this is a good time to bring in the United Nations, the head of the United Nations mission there. That's Mr. Y.J. Choi, and he's with us now from his office in Abidjan. Mr. Choi, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. Y.J. CHOI (Special Representative, United Nations): Thank you.

MARTIN: Could you just describe the atmosphere there from your perspective?

Mr. CHOI: It's very tense. And until yesterday it was very, very dangerous. But since the declaration made by President Gbagbo yesterday evening, situation become much more relaxed. This is like an on and off situation.

MARTIN: Is it true that the peacekeeping forces are being blockaded? Their supply lines, for example, is that true?

Mr. CHOI: It's true. Until this morning, yes. We were completely blocked. Beginning late this morning, the blockade was lifted. It's open now. Our cargo trucks are entering into the hotel.

MARTIN: We understand that soldiers loyal to Mr. Gbagbo have already opened fire on civilians in Abidjan. What is the U.N.'s mandate if they observe this?

Mr. CHOI: We are patrolling Abidjan area in case intervene. There is a confrontation between President Gbagbo's security forces and demonstrators, you know, inside the camp. And it's sporadic and in many places. So there are spots where we may not be present and there the crisis takes place and there the theft occurring. So it's like a cat-and-mouse game.

When there is a - civilians in danger, absolutely, we must intervene. There is a (unintelligible) mandate. We have to intervene. Yes.

MARTIN: It's our understanding that President Gbagbo has told you on no uncertain times that he wants the United Nations to leave Ivory Coast, which means he does not acknowledge a role for the U.N. in this conflict. And the U.N. has, of course, said that he no longer has the authority to make such a determination. What is your sense of what role the U.N. will play going forward here? Do you know at this point?

Mr. CHOI: Now, first of all, we follow instruction from the Security Council. And the Security Council, as you know, renewed our mandate for six more months. So we are staying here doing our job. And our main mandate is to make the will of the people prevail as it was expressed on 28th November. And we must do it in a peaceful way. The military solution is not our option.

MARTIN: I understand that Mr. Ouattara has asked his supporters to make a visible demonstration of their support for him. What are you to do as they do this? Are you to protect them as they demonstrate? What is your role there?

Mr. CHOI: There was what they call march plan on 16th and 17th of December. That march plan was very dangerous because it would very likely (unintelligible) violation and deaths and other casualties. So we made it very clear from the beginning that it's not an option for us to protect and march alongside with them. So we dissuaded them not to do it, and they did it, and there were casualties.

And the situation is so tense, if you try to force yourself, takeover the TV station or government building, there are bound to be casualties and violence here. So, that we cannot be agreeable.

MARTIN: Have the U.N. peacekeepers sustained any casualties to this point to your knowledge?

Mr. CHOI: Not yet, fortunately. But we were attacked by direct bullet firing. And I myself was under direct threat from RPGs two times. And our patrol cars followed. This is an intimidation attempt on their part. So we are in constant danger, but not yet casualties.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense, and I don't know whether you feel that this is beyond the scope of your authority, but do you feel that the situation there is headed for a peaceful resolution, or is it too soon to say?

Mr. CHOI: Good question. It can go either way. It can go for the violence, to our much regret. It can go toward the solution. It depends on President Gbagbo's camp because they know our position. I hope they will not opt for the road for destruction and violence.

MARTIN: So you will not be advancing any military initiative. Your role there... TEXT: Mr. CHOI: Not to all. Not at all.

MARTIN: ...is to keep the two sides apart and to prevent casualties.

Mr. CHOI: You know, imagination can go very far.

MARTIN: Y.J. Choi is the head of the United Nations mission in Ivory Coast. He joined us from his office there. Mr. Choi, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CHOI: Thank you, NPR, good luck to you.

MARTIN: We have just a few more minutes with Associated Press reporter Marco Chown Oved, who's also in Abidjan. So, Marco, you heard Mr. Choi. What leverage does the international community really have here? As you told us earlier, there seems to - Mr. Gbagbo seems to be trying to press for a negotiated solution, as has taken place in, you know, other countries in Africa. But as you pointed out, that there's no ambiguity as far as the international community is concerned about the results. So, but what are the leverage points there? Why can't he just wait it out?

Mr. OVED: Well, yeah, I think you've touched on the heart of the matter here. Never really before have we ever seen a unified voice in the international community coming up so strongly and so quickly against the results of an election. We often see the horse trading and that kind of thing. But here we really have a virtually unanimous international opinion against Mr. Gbagbo.

The strategies that are currently being pursued, I think they're being pushed both by Ouatarra's camp and as well by supporters on the international scene. Cutting off the financial resources of Gbagbo's government. This is happening in two different ways. One, we're seeing major aid organizations, development banks and other international monetary institutions, like the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the local ECOWAS, which is the Local Economic Coalition of West African States. They've all cut off Ivory Coast.

So, Mr. Gbagbo is not receiving any development money, which is of course key for trying to move forward and pursue what he's been trying to do for the last few weeks, which is pretend that nothing's going on. Pretend that this election is over and done with. That he's president and it's a return to normal. Of course, the last most important, perhaps, strategy being pursued is that Ivory Coast here doesn't have its own treasury. It doesn't have its own central bank like many countries do. They have a common central bank with eight other West African countries, former French colonies.

This West African central bank is actually located in Senegal. Mr. Outarra has written to the West African central bank and asked him to cut off all funds to Mr. Gbagbo. And this would literally mean that Gbagbo would not have a treasury. He would not be able to pay salaries. He would not be able to simply run - pay for the day-to-day functioning of this state.

MARTIN: I see. So there are pressure points there, which are being applied. So, thank you, Marco, and hopefully you will stay well and keep us posted. Marco Chown Oved is a reporter with the Associated Press. He was with us on the line from Abidjan. Marco, thank you so much.

Mr. OVED: Thank you, Michel.

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