African leaders to pressure Gbagbo to cede power
Monday, January 03, 2022 10:09 PM

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(Source: Associated Press/AP Online)By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - African leaders are heading to Ivory Coast on Monday, their second visit in a week to persuade the country's renegade president to cede power more than a month after the disputed election or face a military ouster.

Laurent Gbagbo has defied the calls to step down, even though results tallied by the country's electoral commission and certified by the United Nations showed he lost by a nearly 9-point margin to longtime opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo has clung to power with the backing of the army, and human rights groups accuse his security forces of abducting and killing political opponents. The U.N. also says it is being blocked from investigating two suspected mass graves, allegations Gbagbo denies.

The violence over the vote has left at least 173 people dead, heightening fears that the country once divided in two by a 2002-2003 civil war could return to open conflict.

Gbagbo has dismissed the international condemnation as "a foreign plot" led by France, the country's former colonizer. In a break with the past though, African leaders also have taken a stance against one of their own.

The three African presidents due in Abidjan on Monday represent the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, a 15-member regional bloc that is threatening military action if Gbagbo does not agree to step aside.

The leaders include Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan as well as the presidents of Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is coming as the African Union envoy. Jonathan has said that they will continue to push for dialogue.

Col. Mohammed Yerima, director of defense information for the Nigerian military, said that defense chiefs from the 15-nation bloc met Friday to begin strategizing what sort of assault they'd use if talks fail. He said any initial invasion force would rely on the West African coalition's standby force, as well as equipment and material already stockpiled.

If international pressure succeeds in forcing Gbagbo to stand down, Ivory Coast could act as a test case for democracy in Africa and a warning to other strongmen on the continent who refuse to let go.

Gbagbo already had overstayed his mandate by five years when the election was finally held in October after being scheduled and then canceled at least six times. In the lead-up to the November runoff, his party's slogan was, "Either we win. Or we win" - a war cry that some have taken to mean he never intended to step down, regardless of the results.

For several days after the vote, Gbagbo loyalists tried to prevent the election commission from releasing the outcome, and once the results were out, the constitutional council led by a Gbagbo adviser immediately overturned them by canceling half a million ballots from opposition strongholds.

Gbagbo's government then imposed a media blackout, yanking foreign channels off the air. He called on the United Nations peacekeeping mission to leave the country, accusing them of backing his opponent, who is holed up in a luxury hotel in the commercial capital of Abidjan.

The election was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war.

While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.

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