Ivory Coast's Gbagbo hangs tough as strike falls flat

Monday December 27 2010



Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo saw off another challenge to his rule Monday as a call for a general strike fell flat and he prepared to face-down an ultimatum from West African leaders.

Gbagbo's rival Alassane Ouattara, who has been recognised as president by the international community but is trapped in his besieged headquarters hotel protected by UN peacekeepers, had called for a national shut-down.

But the sprawling commercial capital Abidjan, one of West Africa's biggest ports and the key to controlling the country, was as busy as ever, its streets snarled with traffic jams and its street markets packed with shoppers.

Ouattara's party had called on all citizens to stop work and to stay off until Gbagbo stepped down. "We should not let them steal our victory," said the RHDP party, in a statement signed by its director, Alphonse Djedje Mady.

But the statement came out late, and was not carried by the pro-Gbagbo state media. The incumbent's security forces keep the south of the country in an iron grip, and a previous attempt to stage a protest was met with deadly force.

Gbagbo's next challenge will be a meeting Tuesday with leaders from Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone, who come carrying a message from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that Gbagbo must step down.

There seems little chance of that, however, and Gbagbo has warned that ECOWAS' threat of military action could plunge the region into war and endanger the millions of West African migrants living in Ivory Coast.

"If there is internal disorder, a civil war, there will be dangers, because we will not let our law, our constitution, be trampled on. People should get that idea out of their heads," Gbagbo told the French daily Le Figaro.

"We're not afraid. We are the ones who are attacked. We have the law on our side. How far are those attacking us prepared to go?" he demanded.

West African leaders met last week and said if Gbagbo stays "the community will be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people."

Gbagbo branded the threat part of a Western plot directed by France and the United States, whom he accused of undermining Ivorian electoral procedures in order to propel Ouattara into power.

Earlier, Gbagbo's spokesman Ahouda Don Mello made what some saw as a tacit threat against West Africans living in Ivory Coast.

Asked about the ECOWAS threat, Mello warned: "All these countries have citizens in Ivory Coast and they know if they attack Ivory Coast from the exterior it would become an interior civil war."

Despite a decade of crisis, Ivory Coast remains a significant economy. It exports more than a third of the world's supply of cocoa, has a small but promising oil production sector and operates two major ports.

Millions of immigrants from other West African countries come looking for jobs, but in previous crises they have found themselves targeted for attack by mobs of Ivorian "patriot" youths.

The African Union has also called on Gbagbo to go, leaving him almost totally isolated, with only Angola publicly backing its ally. On Sunday, Washington kept up pressure, renewing its support for ECOWAS.

Gbagbo's forces remain firmly in charge in Abidjan, where they have been accused of carrying out scores of killings in pro-Ouattara areas.

Ouattara's shadow government is under siege in an Abidjan resort, protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, but unable to move beyond the grounds of the Golf Hotel or take charge of the levers of state power.

Some 14,000 Ivorians have already fled to neighbouring Liberia amid the post-election violence the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday.