West African Leaders To Confront Laurent Gbagbo

In Ivory Coast, there's been a month-long standoff over the presidency. President Laurent Gbagbo, who lost last month's election, has refused to step down and retains the support of the military. The election winner is holed up in a hotel where he is guarded by UN forces as well as his own rebel supporters.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And now to West Africa, where the region's leaders are trying to prevent a possible outbreak of violence. It's been a month since the presidential election in Ivory Coast, and there's a broad international consensus that the incumbent lost. But he's refusing to give up his office. Three regional leaders in West Africa are now on their way to tell the president that he must quit peacefully or face possible military force. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is monitoring developments, and joins us on the line.

Ofeibea, how serious is this threat that West African countries could possibly use force?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: It's very serious. West African presidents met on Friday, on Christmas Eve, in Abuja, Nigeria, and the conclusion of that emergency summit on Ivory Coast was that they were giving a last chance to Laurent Gbagbo to hand over power peacefully to Alassane Ouattara, or face possible regional intervention.

And West Africa has done it before in other countries, in neighboring Liberia, in Sierra Leone, and in Guinea-Bissau. So the regional leaders are showing their commitment to put an end to this political stalemate, deadlock, and especially the violence in Ivory Coast.

WERTHEIMER: Is there any chance that the incumbent will agree to go?

QUIST-ARCTON: I don't think so. Laurent Gbagbo has dug his heels in. He's, if you want, a serial defier of international, regional, continental pressure. And he maintains that he is the legitimately reelected president of Ivory Coast, because he was declared the winner of last month's vote by the Constitutional Council. But, of course, the electoral commission, endorsed by the U.N., said that Alassane Ouattara was the winner. And Africa, world leaders, the White House, President Obama are all saying: Gbagbo, it's time for you to step down.

WERTHEIMER: Where does this leave the challenger? I understand he's holed up in a hotel.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed, protected by U.N. peacekeepers. There's a peacekeeping force of 10,000 currently in the Ivory Coast. Now, although they don't have freedom of movement - because Laurent Gbagbo's loyal soldiers have ringed the hotel area, Alassane Ouattara is making some headway as far as authority is concerned. He's managed to get the pivotal Central Bank to stop receiving orders from Gbagbo's camp. He has got the United Nations to accredit his chosen ambassador. So he's got some political influence, but he's certainly not governing as a normal government would.

WERTHEIMER: How real is the possibly of civil war in Ivory Coast?

QUIST-ARCTON: That is the real fear in West Africa amongst Ivoirians who have, of course, lived through a coup and a rebellion, but especially amongst regional leaders. Ivory Coast used to be the bastion of peace, prosperity and stability in West Africa. But now, for the past decade or so, this has been a country of turmoil. They're fearful that if war does break out, it will be a real civil war, a bloody and destructive civil war, and one that Ivory Coast cannot afford.

WERTHEIMER: Ofeibea, thank you very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She joined us from her base in Dakar in Senegal.

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