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Ivory Coast rage grows over Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power

Traore Oumou selected her clothing carefully. She chose black, the cursing color, pulling on tight pants and a T-shirt.

It was the day of a women’s protest march calling on Laurent Gbagbo to stand down as president of Ivory Coast.

The women stood against Gbagbo’s soldiers, who fired some threatening shots and lobbed a grenade. It hit a woman in the middle of her forehead but, miraculously, didn’t explode.

Anger bubbled up, stronger than modesty. Oumou and the other women tore off their clothes and stood naked, a powerful ritual curse here.

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“Normally I would never take my clothes off in public,” the 25-year-old student said. “But they shot at us and we had no guns, so we were angry, cursing them.”

The soldiers didn’t shoot again, not that day. But a few days later, in a different neighborhood, they killed seven women.

In a vote result verified by the United Nations, opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won Ivory Coast’s presidential election in November, but Gbagbo refused to cede power. No sooner had the election morphed into a dangerous power dispute than it imploded into unspeakable, escalating atrocities, some by the military, but many by violent, ragtag militias in black balaclavas.

With about 400 people reported dead in violence since the election, no one is predicting a peaceful outcome in a country still trying to resolve a 2002 civil war. But it’s really anyone’s guess whether Ivory Coast faces the kind of orgiastic war that has plagued the region, or a sharp and swift operation to force Gbagbo to go.

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Ivory Coast’s meltdown has been overshadowed by North Africa’s antigovernment upheavals. Yet Western diplomats are watching the outcome in this West African former French colony with alarm on a continent where peaceful power transfers through elections have not been the norm.

This could be a make-or-break year for Africa’s progress on democracy, with almost half the countries of sub-Saharan Africa going to the polls. Ivory Coast is seen as a test of how African leaders react when other leaders cheat in elections.

Do they take military action, as threatened by the Western African regional group ECOWAS? Do they impose sanctions? Or do they pass resolutions but do no more?

In Abidjan, the commercial capital, some people are itching for a fight.

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The city is so jumpy that anything can set off panic. A women’s meeting is interrupted when someone shouts that there’s trouble in the street. The meeting dissolves. Hundreds of people go running in one direction, not knowing what they’re running from.

Nothing, it turns out, this time. As suddenly as it began, it’s over, and people go back to their quiet evening chores.

Full of bravado and swagger, a rebel leader allied with Ouattara claims he’s ready to launch a “surgical attack” to remove Gbagbo.

“It won’t be war. It won’t take long,” the leader, Cisse Sindou, boasts. “We know enough people on the Gbagbo side who are willing to fight with us. We are in contact with a lot of people Gbagbo thinks are his friends who are not his friends. They’re just waiting for the day.

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“I think Ouattara should give us the OK to take Gbagbo out. We’re waiting for the call.”

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A vast, ornate dome protrudes from the steamy jungle of the Ivory Coast capital, Yamoussoukro, like a malarial colonist’s dying dream of Europe.

The French-designed cathedral — the biggest on Earth, loosely based on the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica but a cheeky 60-odd feet taller — was built by former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Nowadays, it’s deserted.

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The tour guides are glum for want of business, and it all seems like a fool’s dream until one steps inside the soaring walls of red and blue stained glass, like falling into a kaleidoscope. (In one panel, Houphouet-Boigny squats improbably just below Jesus.)

Nearby, at the edge of the old presidential compound (not used by Gbagbo, who prefers Abidjan), is a huge moat filled with crocodiles; the ancient watchman whacks the largest one with a long stick to get it to bare its teeth for travelers.

They come when he calls them by name, the legend goes. The cruising crocodiles irresistibly conjure comparisons with the country’s political class, though that might be unfair to the reptiles.

The French brought great baguettes and coffee to West Africa, but also exploitation, and the anger toward the colonials has been cleverly exploited by Gbagbo. After anti-French violence in 2004, the French population shrank from 50,000 to 15,000. Businesses shut down, never to reopen, and investment disappeared.

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For years, Gbagbo has fanned anti-Western, anti-immigrant sentiment. His charismatic youth minister, Charles Ble Goude, founded a violent group of militants called the Young Patriots, many of them unemployed and poorly educated, all of them highly volatile.

In a displaced-person’s camp teeming with Young Patriots ejected from Abobo, a pro-Ouattara neighborhood of the city, the mood sours within minutes of a white journalist’s appearance. A small crowd of hostile men gathers, some apparently drunk, screaming questions and veiled threats.

An offer to leave makes them angrier. Tension spirals and the process of extrication is delicate.

Last week, shooting broke out around the U.N. peacekeepers’ compound in Abidjan as the army tried to crush a pro-Ouattara demonstration. U.N. officials had a bird’s-eye view of the army firing on unarmed demonstrators.

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Dozens of injured were taken to the U.N. clinic and lined up on the floor, dripping pools of blood. Nurses extracted bullets with tweezers from neat finger-sized holes. Four of the injured died.

The same day in another neighborhood, a mortar shell hit a market, killing 25, in an act the U.N. said could amount to a crime against humanity.

There have been hundreds of other killings, according to Human Rights Watch, most of them by pro-Gbagbo forces and militias, but many by anti-Gbagbo militias. One Gbagbo activist, Antoinette Guede, says her brother was beheaded by pro-Ouattara fighters outside their home.

The reported figure of around 400 dead may understate the extent of the killing.

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In Abobo, the pro-Ouattara militias have set up roadblocks every 50 yards in some areas. They wear bandannas, black masks and Che Guevara shirts and slouch about with AK-47 assault rifles slung on their shoulders. They extort money from drivers and beat up suspected Gbagbo loyalists.

On the edge of Abobo, a young fellow with vacant eyes, a grubby bandanna and a machete charges at a taxi, but it’s half-hearted.

“Did you see that?” the driver exclaims, frightened and indignant.

The roadblocks multiply, carving the city into pieces, controlled by the different sides. In the streets, everyone knows who’s in charge. Getting caught at the wrong roadblock by the wrong people at the wrong time can be a death sentence.

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After dark, Gbagbo loyalists stop the cab, searching bags, demanding documents. They fire questions and accusations. Journalists, they hiss, are often spies working for foreign governments.

“Write that Gbagbo is president,” they keep saying. The taxi driver looks into the middle distance, silent and anxious.

When it’s over the driver chugs away in his ancient car, muttering angrily.

“This country,” he says, “makes you afraid.”

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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