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Ivory Coast: Laurent Gbagbo clings to power

Leader rejects calls to step down amid charges of human rights abuses.

Ivory Coast, Gbagbo crisis, U.N. troops
A U.N. peacekeeper guards the Golf Hotel in Abidjan where challenger Alassane Ouattara has his headquarters. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Confronted with charges of human rights abuses and a shortage of funds, Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo has few friends left and is turning to increasingly unconventional measures to stay in power.

Four African leaders came to Abidjan Monday to deliver an ultimatum to Gbagbo to leave office or face a military intervention. The presidents of Benin, Mali and Sierra Leone and Kenya's prime minister met with Gbagbo to encourage him to step down.

But Gbagbo refused to cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara. The African leaders said the talks will continue, but Gbagbo has remained defiant, reiterating his accusations that the United Nations is taking sides and demanding that its 9,000 troops leave the country.

The United Nations, however, said its troops would remain, especially the ones guarding challenger Alassane Ouattara at the Golf Hotel. The U.N. human rights commission has launched an investigation into human rights atrocities and has reported that 200 supporters of Ouattara have been killed in recent weeks. U.N. officials complain that they have been prevented from visiting what they say could be mass graves.

Gbagbo has also ignored efforts by the United States government to get him to accept a "dignified exit" from power. 

Gbagbo lost the presidential election run-off on Nov. 28 but had the result overturned by the country's Constitutional Council, which was packed with his supporters. Gbagbo has managed to stay in control of the country despite near unanimous international condemnation.

His opponent, Ouattara, is recognized as the winner by the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the World Bank and the IMF, as well as a host of African, American and European nations.

But Gbagbo is far from lost. He maintains control of Ivory Coast's borders, its ports, its administration and, most importantly, its army.

Ouattara has successfully started removing Gbagbo's ambassadors from Ivorian embassies abroad and even got Gbagbo's representatives ejected from the United Nations last week. But so far Ouattara has been unable to convert his international legitimacy into effective power on the ground.

Ouattara is betting his future on two gambits, one financial and the other military.

Ouattara has persuaded the regional central bank of West Africa, called the BCEAO, to revoke Gbagbo's access to state funds. While civil servant salaries were paid this month — some only in part, and all a little bit late — Gbagbo's ability to keep the state apparatus functioning looks more and more remote with each passing month. Ivory Coast missed a $30 million interest payment on its $2.3 billion Eurobond due Dec. 31. In addition, the World Bank froze an aid package of $800 million.

If Gbagbo is not able to pay the army and police, his support from those security forces is expected to dwindle.

In addition to waiting for the financial noose to tighten around Gbagbo, Ouattara can count on pressure from the Economic Community of West Africa (Ecowas), the 15-country regional group and its notorious intervention force Ecomog. With heavy Nigerian funding and support, Ecomog has intervened in the some of West Africa's worst civil wars in the last 20 years, including those in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Ecomog's reputation as pillagers led Liberians to rename their acronym “Every Car or Movable Object Gone.”