ABIDJAN: The top UN envoy in Ivory Coast told the Security Council that there was "only one winner" of the recent presidential election — and it’s not the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
Speaking via video link Tuesday from Abidjan, Choi Young-jin urged the United Nations to take action against Gbagbo to safeguard the result of the vote, on the same day that a regional bloc of 15 countries in West Africa suspended Ivory Coast’s membership and warned Gbagbo to yield power immediately to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
The continuing uncertainty over what will happen next in Ivory Coast led hundreds of people to flee the West African country, and the UN also began evacuating some 500 staffers. The UN has said that Gbagbo’s opponent, Alassane Ouattara, won the vote.
Gbagbo has turned his back on international opinion and defiantly went ahead Tuesday with the naming of his Cabinet at a ceremony in the presidential palace, making clear he intends to rule regardless of what most of the world says.
Across town in an aging hotel, the man considered by the UN, US and other regional powers to be the rightful winner of the race held his own Cabinet meeting, minus the pomp. Alassane Ouattara, a soft-spoken economist who spent years at the International Monetary Fund, is being waited on by the hotel’s staff and is guarded by UN peacekeepers. They have rolled out over 1-mile (2-kilometers) of coiled razor wire to surround the Golf Hotel and his prime minister has told foreign diplomats that they need further military reinforcements because they do not feel safe.
It is unclear what the international community can do if Gbagbo refuses to step down. If he does not go voluntarily, removing Gabgbo would require a military intervention since he appears to have the backing of his own army.
He also controls the apparatus of state, including access to the glass-walled palace which is the seat of government, a fact he made clear as he zoomed in past the palace’s shooting fountains in the presidential limousine, and then walked up the red carpet to oversee the installation of his government.
In his briefing to the Security Council, Choi, the UN envoy, recalled how the country’s electoral commission last week declared Ouattara the winner of the election with 54 percent of the vote. That result was immediately overturned by the constitutional council, headed by a close advisor to Gbagbo, who threw out the votes from Ouattara’s strongholds.
Although the constitution gives the council the final say over the vote, Gbagbo signed an accord following the country’s civil war agreeing that the UN would certify the results.
Since the UN declared Ouattara the winner, Gbagbo’s camp has refused to accept the UN’s authority over the vote — a debate that is also taking place within the Security Council where Russia was the only one of the 15 council members which objected, questioning whether the UN should be in the business of certifying elections.
The US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said there was a danger that the Security Council would look impotent if it could not agree to support the mandate it gave Choi. She said she was hopeful they would speak with one voice soon.
"This is an important moment for the Security Council," she told reporters. "The results are known. The facts are clear. And they need to be acknowledged and respected. That’s the position of the United States."
Once considered an African success stories, Ivory Coast’s economy was destroyed by the civil war that broke out in 2002. Gbagbo, who was already president when the war broke out, failed to hold elections in 2005 when his term expired because armed rebels still controlled the northern half of the country. The country remained in political deadlock, with repeated outbursts of fighting, until 2007, when a deal was signed by all the parties paving the way for the election.
In the three years that followed, the ballot was rescheduled at least six times, with Gbagbo complaining over technicalities including how many Ivorian parents a person needed to have to be allowed to vote and the makeup of the electoral commission. At a televised debate on the eve of last weekend’s vote, the country appeared ready to turn a page as Gbagbo shook Ouattara’s hand and promised to abide by the results of the electoral commission.
The standoff has many worried that Ivory Coast may return to war. For several nights, residents in pro-Ouattara neighborhoods say they heard sporadic shooting and at least 20 people have been shot to death since the contested election, according to Amnesty International.
Choi said that as the certifier of the Oct. 31 runoff, he examined some 20,000 tally sheets provided by Ivorian authorities.
"The result I obtained through my certification methods was very clear," he said. "There was only one winner with a clear margin."
In his choice of ministers, however, Gbagbo broadcast that he was not interested in listening to the international community. For the post of foreign minister, he chose Alcide Djedje, who had publicly threatened Choi on national television, saying that if he continues to call Ouattara the winner of the election he will be asked to leave the country.
The new minister of youth is Charles Ble Goude, who is the subject of a 2006 United Nations sanction for his role in inciting the Young Patriots, a pro-Gbagbo group that led violent attacks against foreigners, especially French citizens.
On the steps of the presidential palace, the new ministers posed for a ‘family photo’ alongside Gbagbo who flashed a broad, confident smile.
Goude told reporters that he is not bothered in the least by the world’s condemnation and compared Gbagbo’s win to the contested George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election in 2000.
"(When the Supreme Court) declared Bush the winner, I don’t think the United Nations made a declaration against Bush," he said. "We need to learn to respect other countries. I launch an appeal to the entire world in saying we are a small country, and we are simply asking for others to respect our sovereignty."
He earlier dismissed the international condemnation, painting it as Europeans and Americans beating up on Africa.
But in the capital of Nigeria, a regional body representing 15 countries in West Africa, known as ECOWAS, voted late Tuesday to suspend Ivory Coast’s membership, an especially harsh measure showing that Gbagbo’s government is facing criticism from its African neighbors.
"The summit called on Mr. Laurent Gbagbo to abide by the result of the second round of the presidential election … and to yield power without delay," the ECOWAS statement said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged Gbagbo to "make the right choice" by stepping down and avoiding a path "that leads to isolation from the global community."
Additional reporting by Marco Chown Over, Jonathan Paye-Layleh, and Edith M. Lederer.