3:00pm

Tue December 14, 2010
Africa

Ivory Coast In Limbo After Political Stalemate

Ivory Coast is in political limbo as the official winner of last month's presidential election stepped up pressure on the incumbent to cede power.

The disputed presidential runoff produced a winner, opposition challenger Alassane Ouattara, proclaimed by the electoral commission and certified by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the West African nation. But his rival, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to concede despite pressure at home and abroad for him to step down.

Defiant and increasingly isolated internationally, Gbagbo remains in the presidential palace, protected by Ivory Coast's military and, he says, the Constitutional Council, which declared his victory. Gbagbo has appointed a rival prime minister and Cabinet.

Ouattara is recognized as president-elect by the U.N. Security Council, the White House and other world leaders, as well as the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the European Union. But he operates out of a U.N.-guarded hotel in the main city, Abidjan. Razor wire and sandbags have been laid around the perimeter, making the hotel a mini-fortress. U.N. peacekeepers and armored personnel carriers have taken up positions in front of, and around, the hotel.

It is from here that Ouattara issues declarations, holds negotiations and Cabinet meetings, and is trying to run the country, though he has no access to presidential or government offices. Former rebel forces loyal to Ouattara also guard his headquarters, the aging, sand-colored, lagoon-front Golf Hotel in a leafy Abidjan neighborhood.

Ouattara's camp has now upped the stakes, including a financial strategy to seize control of the Treasury and cut off access to state funds, making it impossible for Gbagbo to pay civil servants and the armed forces, or to continue to run the state. Ouattara loyalists hope this will force his opponent to relinquish power.

The military has pledged its allegiance to Gbagbo, but observers predict mass defections from the public and uniformed services if its members do not receive their salaries.

On Monday, Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, announced that they plan to install their appointee Thursday at the head of the state television headquarters, still under Gbagbo's control. Soro also said he intends to hold a Cabinet meeting in government buildings Friday. These premises are under heavy guard by Gbagbo military loyalists, and analysts warn that any attempt to take them over might trigger violence.

Meanwhile, Ouattara continues to work from the Golf Hotel that Gbagbo's supporters have scornfully dubbed the "Republic of the Golf," saying his authority extends no farther than the hotel grounds, located across town from the official presidential palace.

In addition to the presence of U.N. peacekeepers and rebel forces, Gbagbo's troops have thrown a security ring around Ouattara's hotel, triggering concern about a possible armed confrontation.

The disputed Nov. 28 presidential election that led to this impasse was supposed to reunite Ivory Coast, which was divided by a two-year civil war that began in 2002. Instead, the nation is again a tinderbox.

Gbagbo's army chief, Gen. Philippe Mangou, says there are no plans to attack, however. Speaking to his troops over the weekend, he said: "We are not here to make war. But if we are attacked, we will react -- vigorously."

Anxious Ivorians are desperate for a negotiated settlement to the crisis, to avoid a return to violence or civil war. Many nostalgically recall the heydays of Ivory Coast, pre-1999, when the once-stable nation fell from regional grace as it digested its first coup d'etat.

Ivory Coast then plunged into deeper crisis with a 2002 rebellion. It has yet to recover from divisive issues, including who qualifies to be an Ivorian, in a country whose once-strong cocoa-based economy was partly built with the labor and industry of migrants from all over the region. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.