Ivory Coast's people choose a new leader, a la Yugoslavia

But the massacre of 55 presumed Muslims, discovered Friday, may signal further ethnic strife.

It is being dubbed West Africa's Belgrade. The Ivorian people toppled a leader who had rigged an election in order to cling to power. But the dancing in the streets soon gave way to brutal ethnic clashes as rival political groups battled over the spoils of the people's victory.

In a show of "people power" rare to this region, demonstrators drove out military leader Robert Guei when he tried to steal the Oct. 22 presidential vote.

One by one, Mr. Guei's top officials deserted him. After two days of violent demonstrations in which up to 30 died, Guei fled and veteran socialist politician Laurent Gbagbo - who won the election in large part because of support from the Christian South - declared himself president. Before the dust had settled from the celebration of Guei's departure, the country - once touted as one of Africa's most stable - deteriorated into ethnic violence.

Ivory Coast now joins neighbors like Sierra Leone and Liberia in its instability. And that is making the West nervous. "We are very concerned about this arc of crisis in West Africa," a Western diplomat told Reuters.

While Ivory Coast's residents have been hungry for a return to civilian rule after Guei's coup d'etat last December, Ivorians are sharply divided on what the next step should be. Several key opposition leaders were shut out of last Sunday's presidential election, which the US State Department deemed as "fundamentally flawed,"and many see Guei's fall as an opening for new, inclusive elections.

Supporters of former Ivorian Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim shut out of last Sunday's polls over controversy surrounding his nationality, took to the streets wielding machetes and nail-studded clubs and demanded new elections. Since independence in 1960, Ivory Coast's leaders have been predominantly Christian.

About 300 people have died in the ethnic clashes that have ensued over the past four days. Friday, the bodies of 55 men - apparently Ouattara supporters - were discovered dumped in a field in what many were decrying as a massacre by the country's paramilitary police - further adding to a climate of distrust.

"Why does [Mr. Ouattara] want to come and ruin what the people have accomplished?" says a 20-something named Marie Patricia. "We ask ourselves, what are we going to become? We see Rwanda, we see Liberia. Where will we end up?"

When military leader Guei seized power last year, he tossed out Henri Konan Bedie, who had come to be seen as a corrupt and divisive leader. Guei vowed to pave the way for civilian rule. Instead, he fueled ethnic divisions and used all means to entrench himself at the helm. The past 10 months have seen the economy of the world's leading cocoa producer plummet.

Last week, the Guei government staged a presidential election, with the general himself among the five candidates. He hand-picked his opposition, barring several key opposition candidates - including Ouattara and candidates of the former ruling Democratic Party (PDCI) - from running. He allowed one political heavyweight, Laurent Gbagbo, to run, apparently misjudging the veteran socialist's popularity.

Turnout was low, with much of the population heeding a call for a boycott by Ouattara and the PDCI. About 30 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. The number was in the single digits in some northern towns.

In the days leading up to the elections, Gbagbo warned Guei against fraud, saying the people would take to the streets "Yugoslavia-style," should the military leader try to rig the elections.

During the vote count, when it became clear that Gbagbo was ahead, Guei shut down the electoral commission, called a state of emergency, and declared victory. The popular revolt that followed and overthrew Guei was hailed around the world as a historic demonstration of democracy at work.

Ouattara supporter Guy-Alain, machete in hand, wants "new elections, period. We are no longer ready to respect peace." But despite efforts by countries like the US, Gbagbo was sworn in as president Thursday. And that worries another Western official.

"There are major complications that remain for a Gbabo presidency," he says. Those, he says, are whether his government will be sufficiently inclusive and whether he can control the often undisciplined military.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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