Ivory Coast police fire live rounds to disperse protest as African Union ponders mediation

Police loyal to Ivory Coast's renegade incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo today dispersed a rally led by supporters of President-elect Alassane Ouattara.

Luc Gnago/Reuters
Protesters stand near burning tires at a road block in the Abobo suburb of Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, on Saturday. Ivorian security forces fired live bullets and teargas to disperse the protesters.

Police in Ivory Coast dispersed a planned rally of supporters of President-elect Alassane Ouattara today, firing live rounds and tear gas to disperse crowds in Abobo, a suburb of the country's commercial capital, Abidjan.

Today’s crackdown followed confrontations last week in which police fired on supporters of Mr. Ouattara, reportedly killing six. Another confrontation last night, in the Abidjan suburb of Treichville left two Ouattara supporters dead.

The planned protests come after Ouattara called for mass demonstrations to force renegade incumbent President Gbagbo to step down after losing the Nov. 28 election by a ten percent margin. But Mr. Gbagbo still refuses to step down and instead has called for curfews to keep street protests to a minimum.

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The resulting stalemate appears to have little room for negotiation. But South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and four other African presidents are due to arrive in Abidjan on Monday on a three-day negotiation mission. On Thursday, Mr. Zuma’s deputy foreign minister called the election results “inconclusive” and said that South Africa would stop looking “backward” at election results and instead look “forward” toward some resolution, an approach that many experts see as akin to a powersharing agreement.

Such an arrangement may be palatable to Gbagbo, who otherwise has nowhere else to go. Western donors have cut off aid, European countries have cut off his access to Ivorian bank funds, regional African banks have closed their doors (prompting Gbagbo to seize their assets), and most Western governments have recognized Ouattara as the winner. Zuma’s deputy foreign minister told reporters in Cape Town that both sides had approached the South African government to start a mediation process.

Yet something appears to have been lost in translation.

Zuma’s planned mediation has drawn withering criticism from Ouattara’s camp.

At a press conference Thursday, Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro called the negotiation plan a non-starter.

"When there is a problem in Southern Africa, like in Zimbabwe, do West African leaders go there?" asked Mr. Soro, at a press conference in Dakar. "When there was a problem in Kenya, did you see West African leaders there? No, that was a problem for East Africa."

"There will be 17 elections in Africa this year," he said, adding that offering Gbagbo a power-sharing agreement would make Ivory Coast an "oil stain" that could spread to and undermine the democratization of the continent. He then urged Ivorians to capture the spirit of the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters, and fight, nonviolently, against Gbagbo's attempt to hold onto power. "Ivorian people must organize themselves with the fatal weapon in their hands, cellphones. If you see soldiers firing, capture that with your cellphone."

In South Africa, Ouattara’s chosen representative to the South African government, Patrice Mallet, said that Ouattara would never accept a power-sharing agreement with Gbagbo, especially after his forces have killed hundreds of protesters on the streets of Abidjan in the past few months.

“In [Ivory Coast], there was a fair election. A candidate won, and it was Ouattara,” says Mr. Mallet. “The UN, the African Union, Ecowas [the Economic Community of West African States] have all recognized the fairness of this election, so I don’t know where South Africa is coming from saying that the results are inconclusive. At the beginning of all this, Zuma’s people said that Ouattara has won.”

“South Africa sees itself as a mighty economy in Africa, and they want to tell the world that they are the ones to mediate,” says Mallet. “But there are five presidents together on this panel to come up with a solution, not just South Africa alone.”

While Ouattara’s supporters (estimated to be numbering around 200) dispersed quickly in the face of Gbagbo’s police action, there seems to be little chance that either side is ready to budge from their stated positions. A failure in negotiations at this stage could prompt the northern rebel group – the Forces Nouvelles who are the basis of Ouattara’s support – to return to conflict with Gbagbo’s armed forces, returning the country to civil war.

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