As news of Laurent Gbagbo’s fall from Côte d’Ivoire’s presidency spread around Abidjan, residents of the economic capital expressed a mixture of relief, anger and apprehension. Albertine, a midwife who hails from the Cocody District of the city, scene of the fiercest fighting in recent days, said Alassane Ouattara’s victory as president was tainted.
Gbagbo, who had refused to hand over the presidency to Ouattara, was arrested on 11 April. Reports say he was detained by pro-Ouattara forces, who took him together with his wife and son to the hotel where Ouattara has lived since the disputed elections last year. Other reports say French forces were involved in the operation, but France denies its forces took part in arresting Gbagbo.
The political stalemate has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and residents of cities like Abidjan are having to cope without adequate water, food and electricity. The situation, aid workers warned, would get worse unless the standoff was ended quickly and the country returned to normality.
“It is a huge disappointment to me that things turned out like this thanks to the direct implication of France,” Albertine told IRIN. “Frankly, I don’t see Alassane Ouattara as the man to bring the population together.”
She accused Côte d’Ivoire’s elected president of being the "instigator" of the country’s problems and the Forces Nouvelles, the former rebels allied to Ouattara, of robbing people’s property in the north, killing civilians in the west and looting and burning houses of alleged Gbagbo supporters in Abidjan. “My heart is full of sorrow,” said Albertine. “This crisis is far from over.”
Stéphane, a university student, also insisted that it was premature to talk of problems being solved. “To think that all this has ended is a delusion,” he warned. “The Ouattara camp may have won a battle, but not the war.” Stephane too cited French involvement as a major stigma for Ouattara, complicating his stated mission to reconstruct the country. “Before we can even talk about the future, we should think about what will happen this month. Those images of Gbagbo under arrest are certain to have his supporters up in arms.”
|I believe we should be ready for the worst. There are so many people with arms, along with soldiers who have fled to unknown destinations|
Ahmed, an unemployed youth from the district of Adjamé, was more optimistic. “You have to understand that a page has been turned. Ivoirians have to come together to build a new country. You have to realize it’s not going to be easy because of the huge social breakdown we have seen. But we have to rebuild our society.”
Ahmed talked of the destruction of the Abobo-Adjamé university, one of many such institutions completely wrecked by the fighting, as typical of the things that needed to be rebuilt. ”The first priority for Ivoirians in building peace is to seek forgiveness from each other."
Pascal, an engineer based in Yopougon, another district that has witnessed fierce clashes, drew parallels with the coup staged by Robert Guei against then President Henri Konan Bédié in December 1999, warning that the future was still unclear. “You cannot see Gbagbo’s arrest and Ouattara’s arrival in office as any kind of success,” said Pascal. “I believe we should be ready for the worst. There are so many people with arms, along with soldiers who have fled to unknown destinations.”
Pascal said the recent news of massacres in the west, widely blamed on pro-Ouattara forces, represented “an open wound that will be difficult to close in this country.”
The reports of extreme violence in the west, notably in and around the town of Duékoué, documented at length by Human Rights Watch and in the international press, have led to serious critiques of Ouattara’s military backers, which have overshadowed his appeals for reconciliation and promises of full enquiries into violence committed during the crisis.
In Bouaké, 350km north of Abidjan, news of Gbagbo’s arrest brought people of all ages out onto the streets, cheering and chanting amid blaring horns. The city - whose population is ethnically mixed - has served as the capital of territory held by the Forces Nouvelles from the rebellion in September 2002. Amidst the jubilation, some admitted a reluctance to celebrate prematurely, wanting confirmation that the news was real.
People in Bouaké had followed the growing violence in Abidjan with mounting concern. Ibou*, a youth who fled Abidjan for Bouaké in March, recalled witnessing a man being burned alive by what he said were pro-Gbagbo militants. Ibou said that during the crisis, non-Ivoirians from other West African countries and people with northern names had been prominent victims of a “new law” nicknamed “Article 125 - 100 CFA francs worth of petrol, 25 for a box of matches.”
“We will be celebrating until dawn,” one vendor said. He called out to would-be customers: “Come on, bring your money. I have to buy a good chicken to celebrate tonight.”
Traoré Nabintou, a 28-year-old student, did not hide her pleasure at Gbagbo’s demise. “Because of Gbagbo I’ve got no job, I’m still a student,“ she told IRIN, explaining that despite obtaining her baccalaureate in 2006, lack of job opportunities had forced her into continuing her studies. “Gbagbo is a criminal - he’s a dictator,” said Traoré. “It’s great that he’s out.”
She predicted rapid improvements for Côte d’Ivoire, saying the main culprit was out of the way. “Reuniting the country will not be a problem now that he’s gone. Those who were with Gbagbo, it was strictly for personal gain, not because they loved Gbagbo… They are going to ally themselves now with the other side – you’ll see. That’s already started.”
A frequent accusation against Gbagbo was that he had forced people apart, creating rifts and ruptures where there had been peace. Dembélé Mokhtar, a blacksmith in his thirties, said: “If Gbagbo goes, any divisions in the population are going with him. He sowed division in the country.”
Bamba Mamadou, a soldier, highlighted Ivoirians’ desire for unity. “If you look around you’ll see we are one people - we get along,” he said. “Gbagbo wanted to divide people, but he’s not God. What God hasn’t done, Gbagbo can’t do.”
Diarassouba, 21, a student born and raised in Bouaké, sounded a warning note. “The problem is not Gbagbo - the problem is the post-Laurent Gbagbo [situation]. So many people have been hurt by this crisis - some will want vengeance. This will not be easy. I wonder whether Ouattara will really be able to manage this – especially the divided army. The main problem is in the national army. Alassane must work on bringing order to the armed forces. He didn’t anticipate all this in his plans.”
Diarassouba was critical of the Forces Nouvelles' behaviour since they took over the north in September 2002, an occupation he had witnessed from the start. “Here in Bouaké we have seen excessive abuses, divisions and killings from the rebel side… There are too many rogues in this group and that has to be cleaned up.”