Ivory Coast's 'Young Patriots' key to peace

The leader of a loyalist group could save a fragile peace - or spark new clashes.

Fatou Bamba is sweating ferociously and purple eyeshadow is leaking down her face, but she doesn't care. She's disgusted with the president and wants everyone to know. "[Ivorian President Laurent] Gbagbo is no longer the president!" she screams. "The United Nations can't impose Gbagbo on us."

Ms. Bamba joined thousands voicing their anger with President Gbagbo Sunday at an opposition rally organized to protest the lack of elections that had been scheduled to take place that day. The festive atmosphere and chants of "Goodbye, Gbagbo, goodbye" turned gradually more caustic as the morning wore on, and by the end, the crowd was chanting "Gbagbo, assassin, Gbagbo, thief."

But regardless of the heated rhetoric, the Africa Union has extended Gbagbo's mandate for up to 12 months or until elections can be held. And the UN Security Council endorsed the plan, urging the government to appoint a prime minister acceptable to both sides as soon as possible. Gbagbo says a new prime minister would be appointed "in a few days," but vowed to stay in power until elections could be held.

But the New Forces rebels, who've controlled the north of the country since fighting broke out in 2002, refuse to recognize Gbagbo's authority and have named their own leader, Guillaume Soro, as prime minister. More than 10,000 French and UN troops patrol a zone between the northern rebels and the pro-government militias.

Many observers in this West African nation that was once known for its stability now fear that violent clashes in the commercial capital Abidjan could lead to fresh fighting. In this tense atmosphere, one man, perhaps more than any other is likely to shape the course of events - for better or worse - in the next few days.

Charles Blé Goudé is the leader of the Young Patriots, a group of youths he could whip into a pro-Gbagbo frenzy at a rally of his own Tuesday. Indeed, his calls for supporters to take to the streets have paralyzed Abidjan at various points during the three-year crisis.

Mr. Goudé's acid speeches and booming baritone voice have earned him solid support among Abidjan's loyalist youth who support Gbagbo and are increasingly fed up with an influx of northern Ivorians and immigrants into the country's south, including Abidjan.

Goudé's success has led him to capitalize on his image as a tough-talking militant. He was named a "man of the year" in 2004 by the pro-government Notre Voie (Our Way) newspaper and has released a CD of speeches, titled "A Message of Hope" that is sold at one of Abidjan's swankiest mini-malls.

While he says his movement is non-violent (he says he's borrowed from the leadership styles of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi), others say his rhetoric has exacerbated the problems and led to outbreaks of violence that have compromised the fragile peace process.

"Their clout lies in their capacity to be disruptive," says Jeanne Maddox Toungara, a history professor at Howard University who has studied the Ivory Coast. "Blé Goudé is manipulated - he manages the crowds with the money he gets from the president."

Others also suspect Goudé is financed by Gbagbo's regime. When asked, Goudé refuses to reveal where he receives his financial support.

Ivorian reggae singer Alpha Blondy, who was recently named a United Nations ambassador of peace in the country, has met with Goudé and says the president is using him for political leverage.

"The politicians are using Blé Goudé and Guillaume Soro," he says, referring to the leader of the New Forces rebels.

These days Goudé's venomous speeches against French interference have cooled and been replaced with passionate pro-Gbagbo speeches and a continued call for the rebels to disarm.

That wasn't the case last November when more than 8,000 French fled the country as the Young Patriots took to the streets and attacked French businesses and soldiers, convinced France was hatching a plot to overthrow Gbagbo.

The attacks reinforced the perception that Goudé's Young Patriots are violent, something that he denies.

"When you have a mass of people ... you can't control everybody. What a minority of people have done, they are destroying the image of all the movement," Goudé says, making sure to point out, he is "working on" weeding out and calming the rogue elements.

Before leading the Young Patriots, Goudé, the youngest of 12 siblings born to cocoa-farming parents, was member of the University of Abidjan's powerful student federation.

While studying English at the university, he helped organize rallies, parading through the dorms with a megaphone, announcing meetings. Ironically, the head of the student union at the time was none other than current rebel leader Guillaume Soro.

Goudé, who also studied politics and communication at the University of Manchester in England for a year, now says Mr. Soro is leading a terrorist rebellion. He says that there are better ways to deal with their grievances than taking up the gun against the government.

Yves Maurice Abiet was a friend of Goudé's while at the University of Abidjan. He now works for one of the more vociferous opposition newspapers but still chats on the phone with Goudé and considers him a friend.

"The students liked his tough talk against [former president Henri Bédié]," says Mr. Abiet. "He was very comfortable in his role of firing up the crowd," but Abiet adds, "If he doesn't have a mass [of followers], I think he is weak."

After the crisis is over, Goudé says he will stay in politics, but move behind the scenes. "We'll work for politicians, to polish their images. Like Karl Rove works for Bush."

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