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Thursday, 2 November, 2000, 16:44 GMT
Ivory Coast: Reflections on people power

Troops loyal to General Guei fired on protesters
By Barnaby Phillips in Abidjan

The very best and the very worst of humanity were so vividly on display in the main Ivorian city, Abidjan, this past week that I shall never forget it.

When growing tensions finally exploded, I spent much of my time, crouched by the window of the BBC office, so conveniently located in the very centre of the city.

We watched in awe as the crowds marched towards the soldiers on the streets below.

protests in Abidjan
The protests soon forced Guei out of office
Sometimes the soldiers fired over their heads, but sometimes they fired right into their ranks - live ammunition.

The crowds would fall as each volley was fired, wait a moment, and then rise and carry on walking.

Except that we could see that after each volley, not everyone got up - a few just lay still.

It was this courage that carried the crowds forward, right to the gates of the presidential palace, and forced military leader General Robert Guei into an ignominious and hurried departure.

Reality

The following day, with the general gone, and the real winner of the elections, Laurent Gbagbo, ready to be sworn in as president, we were confronted with a much uglier and more complicated reality.


All traces of General Guei were quickly removed
Now we were out on the streets, driving through neighbourhoods devoid of all signs of life except for the ominous sight of gangs of young men guarding each junction ahead.

They carried clubs, and their faces were covered in war paint, and they would order us to stop.

These were many of the same youths who had defied the bullets the day before - now they were hunting down supporters of Laurent Gbagbo's great rival, Alassane Ouattara, who had enraged them with his call for new elections.

"We are patriots and intellectuals, fighting a noble cause" one man said to me, as he checked whether passing vehicles were carrying anyone from the north of the country, which is Mr Ouattara's power-base.

Any northerner discovered was lucky to be stripped naked and beaten - dozens were clubbed to death.

Africa's Milosevic?

Typically African you might say - that the heroism of a Belgrade-style people's uprising should degenerate so rapidly into that grim but familiar scenario of a vicious ethnic conflict.


Barricades were erected looking for Ouattara supporters
Well, perhaps, although there are plenty of people in Africa who will argue that if the Balkan wars weren't tribal, then what on earth were they?

I'm not quite sure whether General Robert Guei is Africa's Milosevic, as some of the banners held up by the crowd suggested.

The two men share a lust for power, which made them utterly indifferent to the disastrous consequences of their actions for their respective countries.

But General Guei never really seemed like a man in control.

The evening before he was overthrown, we gathered in the presidential palace for an extraordinary press conference.

Just an hour earlier, the military had forcibly dissolved the electoral commission, which was giving out results suggesting that General Guei had lost.

Pushing his luck

This was more then he could take - he accused the commission of incompetence, and produced his own set of results, which gave him victory.

Laurent Gbagbo
Gbagbo is backed by some of General Guei's former close allies
It was outrageous, and the general had pushed his luck too far.

Outside the palace central Abidjan was already deserted, as people rushed home, fearing the worst.

Across the river, in the poorer suburbs, the barricades were already going up.

But in the palace, the General was thanking the people for their wise selection, and promising to do the job to the best of his modest abilities.

The crowd of cronies and sycophants sang the national anthem, and the General left the room.

He's not been seen in public since.

Plus ca change

I marvelled at the stupidity of his closest supporters, and wondered what would happen to them in the tumultuous hours that were bound to follow.

Alassane Ouattara
Ouattara: Wants new elections
In fact, it was me who was being na´ve.

Two days later, in that same palace, the world had turned upside down, and yet nothing had changed.

Laurent Gbagbo, for years seen as little more than a rabble-rouser off the street, was being sworn in as the new president.

His wife could not hold back her tears.

And there, in the room, were many of the same men, their faces beaming with smiles, who had stood beside General Guei two nights earlier.

The impossibly suave Armenian, who has somehow made himself indispensable to everyone who rules Ivory Coast. And Brigadier-General Mattius Due, who had quickly transformed himself from hard-man in the military junta, to army chief-of-staff, serving a democratic government.

And perhaps that is the real lesson of all revolutions, be they in Africa or in Yugoslavia.

For all the gun-shots, smoke and drama, the really powerful people remain discreetly in the background, and, once the crowds have dispersed, quickly pick up where they left off.

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See also:

25 Oct 00 | Africa
Ivory Coast's uncertain future
25 Oct 00 | Media reports
Ivory Coast minister defects
25 Oct 00 | Media reports
Guei victory speech
25 Oct 00 | Africa
In pictures: Ivory Coast uprising
25 Oct 00 | Media reports
Gbagbo addresses Ivorian nation
01 Nov 00 | Africa
No sanctuary for General Guei
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