Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Ivory Coast, the Former Ruling Party Tries to Rebuild

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Ivory Coast, the Former Ruling Party Tries to Rebuild

Article excerpt

After rebels loyal to President Alassane Ouattara stormed Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan in 2011, they descended on the headquarters of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), breaking windows, ripping out electrical sockets, and stealing air conditioners.

The three-story mansion remains bare and unrepaired two years later, still filled with portraits and posters of former President Laurent Gbagbo on the walls and in the offices and waiting rooms of the compound.

This may be the only place left where Mr. Gbagbo's face can be found in Abidjan, so thoroughly has the new government scrubbed the city of any sign of his decade-long reign.

But Gbagbo is far from irrelevant to the current politics of Ivory Coast. Indeed, as he now sits in Europe awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), his guilt or innocence, as well as the circumstances of his removal from power, continue to divide the country.

During his reign, the conflict between the government in the south and a coalition of rebels united behind Mr. Ouattara in the north created sharp ethnic and regional divisions. Now with Ouattara in power, the schism remains between those who saw Gbagbo as a nationalist crusader against foreign meddling, and those who revile him for the bloody excesses of his time in power.

As Ivory Coast heads to elections in 2015, the leadership of the FPI - at least, those who aren't in jail or exile - are gearing up to convince Ivorians that the party Gbagbo built can once again be trusted to run the country.

Not him

Gbagbo supporters say the former president has nothing to do with the 3,000 deaths that followed his refusal to cede power after losing a 2011 election. They say he didn't use heavy weapons on civilians, as claimed by ICC prosecutors who are seeking a war crimes conviction against Gbagbo.

"He may have been wrong on some decisions. He was a human being," says FPI spokesman Bamba Franck Mamadou. "But President Gbagbo was not a killer."

Rodrigue Kone, a program officer for Freedom House says "the FPI is like a boxer. He goes down to count, and wakes up, but he has not all his mind, and he wants to continue to box. Those who voted Laurent Gbagbo are still there."

The party's Interim Secretary-General Richard Kodjo casts the FPI as a resurgent political force that is being persecuted by Ouattara's regime. He complained that the government sends soldiers to break up their meetings and tried to burn down their headquarters after a party rally in January.

"It's now been two years since President Gbagbo was a victim of a coup d'etat. Those who did this were expecting to put down the FPI," Mr. Kodjo says. "But instead of that the FPI has not just resisted but, better, it has emerged."

US help

FPI supporters say their defeat in 2011, as UN and French gunships fired on the presidential residence and Ouattara's rebel allies fought their way through the city, was little more than an overthrow backed by the international community, particularly former colonial ruler France. …

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