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Laurent Gbagbo: “I’m here, I’m staying”

By François Soudan in Abidjan
Posted on Tuesday, 26 October 2010 08:50

As Côte d’Ivoire prepares to go the polls on 31 October, our sister magazine Jeune Afrique spoke to President Laurent Gbagbo. The Africa Report is reprinting an edited version of the interview.

Jeune Afrique: So here we are at last … The mother of all Ivorian electoral battles is about to begin.

Laurent Gbagbo: Yes, finally. Our efforts have paid off. We’re minutes away from the goal. I am a happy man.

Especially as this sort of fight pleases the political animal in you. The smell of gunpowder, that’s your adrenaline.

I am a child of the elections! If power in Côte d’Ivoire was inherited, I would never have had any position in this country. And you are right – I like leading these battles, I like campaigning. It excites me.

An historical election, but also the end of a cycle which began 17 years ago with the death of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The trio that you form with Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara will compete in the October 31 polls for the first and last time.

More precisely, I’d say that 31 October will mark the end of the war between the Houphouët heirs, one of which I am not. The first shot of this war reverberated in the chamber of the National Assembly in January 1993, when deputies wanted to break down the reforms proposed by the prime minister at the time, Alassane Ouattara. This was a first crack in the mechanism that Houphouët had put in place to block the road to another Côte d’Ivoire, ours. Then the crack became a fracture and the heirs attacked each other with ferocity. This fratricidal struggle has opened the way; we waded through the most difficult of times before coming to power. Tomorrow we will finally reconcile the two remaining heirs by allowing them to assert their right to political retirement.

Just a little less than two months ago, your supporters explained that there could be no election without two prerequisites: an overhaul of the electoral register, which you judged biased in favour of the opposition, and the complete disarmament of the rebels. The list has been very lightly groomed, but the disarmament is still not complete. Why did you relent on your demands?

Listen. A lot of fraudulent names have been eliminated from the list, probably more than the official figure of 55,000. As for disarmament, it has reached a stage which is workable for us. I am generally satisfied.

You, yes. But not necessarily the most radical members of your camp. I would imagine that you had to impose the date of 31 October.

Absolutely and it has not been easy. You know, I have always made sacrifices so that Côte d’Ivoire can come out of the crisis.

All the same, you believe in polling data…

Of course. And everyone in Côte d’Ivoire believes in it, even those who pretend otherwise. Just see how they change their campaigns based on the results. When the polls say that Gbagbo is closer to the people, off they go down to the neighbourhoods to eat with people on the roadside. Gbagbo is the youth candidate? They’re quick to try and jabber away in nouchi, Abidjan slang. It’s amusing. Deep down inside, my opponents know very well that these polls are significant, but they cannot tell their supporters this. I hope that when the time comes, the disillusionment will not result in violence.

Neither you, nor Bédié nor Ouattara, seem to consider the hypothesis of a defeat.

When it comes to elections, there is no such thing as zero risk. However, when 10 polls (eight from TNS-Sofres, one from Gallup and one from IREEP) put you in the lead for a year and a half, and right up until the election, they are rarely wrong. [Editor’s note: The latest TNS-Sofres poll, of 12 October puts Gbagbo in the lead with 48% in the first round and as the winner of the second round, with 54% over Bédié and 61% over Ouattara]. That said, no election is a foregone conclusion. I cannot stress this enough to my supporters and to all Ivorians.

You are committed, nevertheless, to accepting the results of the presidential election, whatever it may be?

Of course.

Who do you consider to be your main opponent?

If I am to believe the polls, it’s Bédié and I will beat him.

And Ouattara?

This will no doubt be easier. But no matter what, as long as my opponents rely on the ballot box.

Does a victory for you in the first round sound feasible?

I’m not ruling this out.

All the studies show that voting beyond ethnic and regional identities is making progress in Côte d’Ivoire, particularly in Abidjan. Is this your chance?

Yes, for a very simple reason that I’m the only one of the three candidates that has not based his campaign on identity politics, whether they are ethnic or religious. My electorate is far more scattered, the most broad-based.

Your ethnicity being a minority, you have little choice.

That’s right. If I was counting only on the Bété vote, even if I could be a king at home, I would not go very far. But it is also the result of a deep conviction that the modern vote is the future. Nearly one-third of voters live in the melting pot of Abidjan. Abidjan is the laboratory of the tomorrow’s Côte d’Ivoire. This is where the battle will be most interesting to observe: it will be a battle for democratic values, an ethical battle.

On your track record, and these are the same polls that say this, the majority of your countrymen are dissatisfied with governance, socioeconomic conditions and with the management of public affairs.

Rightly so. And yet, this very same majority is preparing to vote for me. Ostensibly, this is a contradiction. In reality, Ivorians are well aware that the source of their troubles is not Gbagbo, but the war that this country has known. That the war was not because of Gbagbo but his opponents.

So you aren’t responsible for anything? That’s a bit simplistic.

No, this is a reality. Everything came to a halt in September 2002 – free schooling, universal health insurance, the full-employment policy for young people, cocoa processing plans, etc. In a post-conflict country, governance is often carried out on a shoestring, under emergency conditions. But Ivorians understood one thing, Laurent Gbagbo, he at least, stopped the mismanagement and the corruption. Before me, these people were promoted. Basically, my compatriots said to themselves, he has perhaps not done enough for us, but he’s our guy.

Henri Konan Bédié willingly puts forward his wisdom and his experience as head of state to your supporters. What is your reaction?

Bédié and I have a totally different concept of a head of state’s function. Similar to that which existed between Maréchal Philippe Pétain and General Charles de Gaulle in France in 1940. I do not understand how a leader can abandon his country, as he did in December 1999, and not organise a counter-attack. Pétain surrendered, de Gaulle resisted. Needless to say who resembles whom today in Côte d’Ivoire.

Alassane Ouattara plays a different tune. He says Côte d’Ivoire is ill and needs an economist at its bedside. He claims that you are incompetent in this field, while he has the ability to find the funds necessary to rehabilitate the country. What do you say to that?

Ouattara belongs to that generation of technocrats imposed in the early 1990s by the donors upon several African governments. It was a fashion. However, they all failed because running a country means first working in politics before applying recipes bearing the Bretton Woods stamp. And then to repeat in meeting after meeting that we know where to find the money to save the country is just to peddle illusions. Money is earned by the work of the people, everything else is just grandstanding.

If you are elected, would you be prepared to offer Ouattara an official position?

We don’t discuss sharing positions before an election, we win it first.

And a government of national unity?

Same reply. I don’t want to stifle the democratic debate with catch phrases like ‘Whatever the results, we will govern together’. Put yourself in the voters’ shoes: why would they go the polls under those circumstances?

What will you do if you lose?

I won’t be beaten. I’m here, I’m staying. But I won’t be president forever and, one day, I will pass the torch to someone younger. And the following day, I think I will write the story of my life.

The Ivorian army has become a campaign issue because your opponents accuse you of ethnicity-based promotions. What do you say to this?

This is false. Take the last wave of promotions in August. Which of the promoted generals are of my ethnicity? Philippe Mangou? He is from Yopougon. Georges Guiai Bi Poin? He’s Gouro. How many Bété are there amongst high-ranking officers? Count them and tell me. You can’t just make accusations, there has to be proof. Those who I promoted in August were rewarded for being the main architects of the reorganisation of the army after the September 2002 attack.

Do you trust the new Commission Electorale Inde´pendante (CEI)?

More than the previous one, obviously. I know that there will still be some fraud, but not of our making. It will be an acceptable and, let’s say, to an almost inevitable extent. The head of the CEI has changed, but my supporters are still the minority, as you know.

Does the recent visit to Abidjan by the secretary-general of the Elysée, Claude Guéant, signify that France and Côte d’Ivoire have finally made their peace?

We have started to discuss everything – and the important thing was to start. I am very satisfied with this meeting.

Who among your counterparts has expressed support for you in the elections?

John Atta Mills of Ghana came here to give his encouragement. Jacob Zuma of South Africa announced his support and has already sent me a minister. José Eduardo dos Santos, of Angola, sent an emissary.

Does Guillaume Soro have a presidential future?

It is legitimate for him to believe so, but I don’t want to comment on this yet. We have to let things settle.

If you’re elected, you’ll be celebrating…

No, that’s not my style. After the presidential elections comes the legislatives. Then, I need to go to my village and rest. Just a few days. There is so much to do!

This article was first published in french in our sister magazine, Jeune Afrique. For interviews with two of the other candidates standing in Côte d’Ivoire’s elections, see their interviews with Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara.

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