ABIDJAN: Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo clung unflinchingly to power Sunday, warning West African leaders any attempt to oust him by force would ruin the regional economy and trigger a bloody war.
On Tuesday, three West African presidents will visit Abidjan in a bid to convince the defiant 65-year-old leader to step down, a last-ditch plea that comes backed by a threat of military intervention.
But Gbagbo, who claims to have won last month’s presidential election, is in no mood to stand aside for his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara, who has been recognised as the victor by UN vote monitors and world powers.
“The president will welcome them as brothers,” Gbagbo’s interior minister, Emile Guirieoulou, told reporters when asked about the upcoming visit by the leaders of Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin.
“That said, the respect of our constitution is non-negotiable for us. So if they respect of the constitution of the Ivory Coast, we can talk. If they try to deny its prerogatives and competences, the president will answer.”
Several international leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, have warned Gbagbo’s stubbornness could plunge Ivory Coast back into civil war.
But Gbagbo’s supporters turned the warning around, claiming instead that the threat of military action by the West African bloc ECOWAS poses a greater risk of mass civilian casualties and a regional conflagration.
The regime’s spokesman Ahoua Don Mello branded the West African move a “Western plot directed by France” and warned that military action could put millions of regional immigrants in Ivory Coast in danger.
“The people of Ivory Coast will mobilise. This boosts our patriotism. This strengthens our faith in Ivorian nationalism,” said Don Mello, who serves as minister for infrastructure and sanitation in Gbabgo’s government.
Gbagbo’s spokesman said he did “not believe at all” that it would come to a fight because there are millions of West African immigrants in Ivory Coast.
“All these countries have citizens in Ivory Coast and they know if they attack Ivory Coast from the exterior it would become an interior civil war,” he warned, in what some saw as a threat that immigrant workers will be targeted.
“Suppose ECOWAS decides to intervene militarily, how will they do it? How will they sort through us, to see who are the those who support Gbagbo, those they will come to make war on?” demanded Guirieoulou.
“How are they going to sift out the Nigerian citizens who are in Ivory Coast, the Malian citizens who are in Ivory Coast? We all live together,” he snorted, insisting the threat was “not serious”.
Despite a decade of crisis, Ivory Coast remains a significant economy. It exports more than a third of the world’s supply of cocoa, has a small but promising oil production sector and operates two major ports.
Millions of immigrants from poorer West African countries have come looking for jobs, and in previous crises such as the riots of 2004 they have found themselves targeted for attack by mobs of Ivorian “patriot” youths.
Gbagbo has brushed off sanctions on its members by the United States and the European Union, but the tough stance taken by its neighbours has touched a raw nerve, and undermined his claim to be fighting Western colonialism.
On Friday, ECOWAS members said if Gbagbo does not go “the community will be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people.”
This followed an earlier vote by the finance ministers of the West African Monetary Union single-currency bloc to block the regime’s access to Ivory Coast’s accounts in the Central Banks of West African States.
The African Union has also called on Gbagbo to go, leaving him almost totally isolated, with only Angola publicly backing its ally.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday that 14,000 Ivorians have fled to neighbouring Liberia amid the post-election violence.
On Sunday, both camps accused the other of forcing the refugees, who come from a divided are in the west of the country, to flee.
Gbagbo’s forces remain firmly in charge in Abidjan, where they have been accused of carrying out scores of killings in pro-Ouattara areas.
Ouattara’s shadow government is under siege in an Abidjan resort, protected by 800 UN peacekeepers, but unable to move beyond the grounds of the Golf Hotel nor take charge of the levers of state power.
France, meanwhile, struck another blow on behalf of Ouattara’s camp, seizing control of Gbagbo’s official plane at an airport on the Swiss border on behalf of the “legitimate authorities” of the Ivory Coast.