Ivory Coast: Laurent Gbagbo clings to power

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.”

Despite Ecowas's Christmas Eve threat to use force if Gbagbo doesn't step down, the possibility of a military intervention in the Ivory Coast remains remote, said African security analyst Peter Pham.

“None of the Ecowas countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a 'decapitation strike' to remove the regime leadership,” said Pham, who is senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. “That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties.”

“Even if somehow the political agreement, to say nothing of the stomach, could be summoned for such an operation, there are serious doubts that Ecowas has the wherewithal to carry it out,” Pham said.

Gbagbo suffered a further blow when his high-powered American lobbyist Lanny Davis resigned after Gbagbo refused to take a phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama.

Davis, a former special council to Bill Clinton, was reportedly paid $100,000 per month to make Gbagbo's case in Washington. Davis gave a spirited defence of Gbagbo on CNN last week, but he refused to continue after the Ivory Coast leader rejected a phone conversation with Obama. Davis said Gbagbo's move was a step in the wrong direction, away from dialogue and a peaceful solution and toward violence.

Following Davis' resignation, Gbagbo quickly hired two new big-name lawyers, both with checkered reputations, to argue his case. Former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas arrived in Abidjan late last week accompanied by Jacques Verges, the man who has made a name for himself as the defender of the indefensible.

Dumas is best known as one of the kingpins in France's Elf affair, which The Guardian newspaper called Europe's biggest fraud case since World War II. Over the course of decades, hundreds of millions of dollars were funnelled through French oil company ELF to corrupt African dictators, mercenaries and coup plots, with the knowledge and blessings of top French officials.

Verges is best known in the English-speaking world as Slobodan Milosevic's defense lawyer, but he was already an expert in the defense of war criminals by that time. He had defended Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbi, better known as the Butcher of Lyon, several high profile Algerian terrorists, and 1970s international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. He was asked to represent Saddam Hussein, but was passed over in favor of a Jordanian defence team.

Upon hearing of his Gbagbo's new team, Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, said that Gbagbo had hired the “lawyer of all lost causes.”

Laurent Gbagbo might have a  legal team used to representing lost causes, but the African leader is not admitting defeat yet.