In Ivory Coast, Democrat to Dictator

Copyright New York Times
Published: April 7, 2011

IN 1982, when I was a student in Abidjan, I went on strike for Laurent Gbagbo. President Félix Houphouët-Boigny — Ivory Coast’s first president, who ruled for more than 30 years — had forbidden Mr. Gbagbo, then a democracy activist and history professor, from holding a conference. The government detained about 100 of us demonstrators at a military base, where we spent two days without food. We didn’t regret it; we had pinned our hopes for democracy on Laurent Gbagbo.

But look at Mr. Gbagbo now: Soundly defeated at the polls last November after a decade as president, he refused to concede, plunging Ivory Coast into chaos. Those who protested were tortured and killed; his soldiers fired on gatherings of women and shelled a market, killing dozens. It’s only now, after United Nations and French troops have intervened and he has been besieged in his home, that he may be prompted to give up his hold on power.

How did the man who was once seen as the father of Ivorian democracy turn to tyranny? Was it the corruption of power? The intoxication of going from having nothing to everything all at once? Only a year before he was elected president, in 1999, I remember him denouncing Slobodan Milosevic, saying: “What does Milosevic think he can do with the whole world against him? When everyone in the village sees a white loincloth, if you are the only person to see it as black, then you are the one who has a problem.” But in the space of 10 years, he became deluded by power, a leader whose only ambitions were to build palaces and drive luxurious cars.

After last fall’s election, Mr. Gbagbo and his wife, Simone, refused to accept the results, in part because they had become evangelical Christians, and their pastors convinced them that God alone could remove them from power. Every day on state TV, fanatical clergymen called Mr. Gbagbo God’s representative on earth, and the winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara, the Devil’s. Many young Ivorians, poor, illiterate and easily brainwashed, believed this.

More prosaically, Mr. Gbagbo and his cronies — guilty, among other crimes, of stealing from the public coffer — fear being brought to justice before an international tribunal, so much so that they have decided to hold on to power no matter the cost. The fear of losing everything can make a dictator, even one who once was a champion of democracy, lose his mind.

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