Gbagbo and the crocodiles — can the cycle be broken?

April 8, 2011

 IVORYCOAST-ELECTION/   Next to Muammar Gaddafi, Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo probably is one of the most vilified men on the planet, which makes it all the harder to remember he once was a shining hope for his country, and for Africa.

   That was more than two decades ago, in the late 1980s, when the French-educated, leftist history lecturer, cinema buff and mate of the late French Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand, returned to his native Ivory Coast to challenge the octogenarian post-colonial leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

    It wasn’t an easy or even particularly safe thing for Gbagbo, then in his 40s, to do at a time when the world’s biggest cocoa grower was firmly in the grips of the authoritarian Houphouet.

    Journalists like myself who went to interview and talk to Gbagbo in his villa in one of the plush residential areas of Abidjan knew at a glance that secret police were keeping tabs on his — and our — every movement. His house probably was bugged. He didn’t seem to mind or pay much attention, at least in the presence of the press.

     He seemed instead to relish the attention, and his self-appointed role as the man who was going to shake up the old order.

    At a time when Ivory Coast’s huge exports of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cocoa beans was managed by a state-run monopoly, which assured that Houphouet had funds to build a mammoth, air-conditioned Roman Catholic cathedral in Yamoussoukro, and his clique remained loyal, Gbagbo talked about giving cocoa farmers their due.

    “When we are in power, 50 percent of the market selling price for cocoa will go to the planters,” Gbagbo said in one of his populist pronouncements in the run up to the 1990 election, where he was crushed by Houphouet, in the last election before he died.

    Gbagbo couldn’t deliver on his promises then, and didn’t deliver later, when he was proclaimed president in a disputed 2000 election from which his rival Alassane Ouattara, the man who is on the verge of ousting him now, was excluded over doubts about his Ivorian nationality.

    Gbagbo had run as an agent of change, the voice of the younger generation, the man who would help Ivory Coast, and by implication, other countries of Africa, to make the leap into the 20th century where economic growth and democratic government would triumph over autocrats and dictators and be the great leveler to erase poverty and ethnic and tribal rivalries.

    Isn’t it poignant to recall, then, as Ouattara’s forces, aided and abetted by the former colonial power France, besiege Gbagbo in his bunker that Ivory Coast’s first post-colonial ruler Houphouet-Boigny also was considered a progressive in his day?

    He made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s, when Ivory Coast was a colony, as a promoter of peasant rights. He went on to build the famous crocodile pool at his palace (not to be confused with the cathedral — Houphouet had bets both ways on eternity) in his ancestral village of Yamoussoukro, in the rain forest in the centre of the country.

     “There were no crocodiles in Yamoussoukro before. No one knows precisely what they mean,” V.S. Naipaul wrote in his famous 1984 New Yorker magazine piece named for the beasts. “But to all Africans they speak at once of danger and of the President’s — the chief’s — magically granted knowledge of his power as something more than human, something emanating from the earth itself.”

     In other words: “Don’t mess with me, you could get hurt — or worse.”

    Ouattara, a former deputy head of the International Monetary Fund and a stayer if ever there was one, is next man up. Will he be able to resist the primal, siren call of power?

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