Ivory Coast: As Gbagbo's World Crumbled, State TV Played On
Thursday, as pro-Ouattara Invisible Commandos emerged from their hiding places in the neighborhoods of Abidjan and the head of Gbagbo’s armed forces abandoned him, the state television station RTI broadcast a story about bread. Trays of crusty baguettes were pulled out of large ovens. What could be more appropriate? Laurent Gbagbo is nicknamed The Baker because he rolls his enemies in flour, always managing to come out on top. But the city was encircled by the newly constituted Republican Forces, loyal to Ouattara, and his own soldiers and policemen were disappearing. The Baker was going to need a very large sack of flour to get out of this one.
After baguettes, RTI moved on to an interview with a socio-economist who said that all of Ivory Coast’s problems were caused by The West, which wanted to control the Ivorian economy for its own profit. “We need two things,” he said. “An independent economy and leaders who work for Ivory Coast and not for themselves.” This last comment caused the economist to disappear in a not-so-subtle edit. He reappeared a moment later praising “the president,” who at that hour on RTI was still Laurent Gbagbo. The next story was about a statue of the Virgin Mary in a traffic circle. The statue was delicate, white, and wore a bright blue sash. A young Muslim girl had seen the statue move its folded hands. “A manifestation of the Virgin,” said a priest. “The Virgin chose this Muslim girl.”
I skyped a student in the pro-Ouattara section of Koumassi, a suburb of Abidjan. The sound of machine gun fire was so loud it was difficult to talk. He said four Invisible Commandos armed with machine guns walked down his street earlier, reassuring residents that they meant them no harm and urging them to stay inside. He and his neighbors had gone out to see the smoke, which seemed to be coming from the police headquarters nearby. The shooting sounded like it was coming from near the airport. Huddled inside, they weren't sure whether to be hopeful or terrified.
I checked back in with RTI. In a soap opera, a man had been offered a post as minister in the government. He asked his wife if he should accept. “I just don’t want any bad things to come into our life because of this,” she demurred.
Her concern was reasonable. Two of Gbagbo’s ministers trying to flee to Dubai had just been stopped at the airport.
After the soap opera, finally, the news. Gbagbo’s spokesman said that President Gbagbo was closely following the situation, but because it was evolving so quickly, he had postponed his planned address to the nation.
Then there was a music video called “Let’s Respect the Constitution.” Texts of constitutional articles appeared on the screen as singers rapped and dancers danced. Anyone can use the military for a coup d’état. Gbagbo’s genius was to do it constitutionnally, using the nation's highest court.
As the city around them was in chaos, a panel of pro-Gbagbo journalists and academics summarized Ivorian history. Westerners had sent Alassane Ouattara to carry out their programs for their benefit. Gbagbo was a hero for democracy in Africa. Old footage played over and over of his younger pro-democracy activist days.
RTI’s sound became scratchy. Witnesses said there was shooting near the television station, which is close to Gbagbo’s residence. It seemed he had chosen to go down fighting. Finally, Thursday night, the screen went dark.
In the real world outside RTI, Ivorians are fearful, exhausted, and hungry. They huddle in their houses, hoping to survive. In the four months that Gbagbo has refused to step down, the suspicions and resentments between political parties, between northerners and southerners, and between ethnic groups have deepened and darkened. Ouattara’s young fighters want revenge for the killing of their friends and relatives. Gbagbo’s young partisans have nothing to lose and could wreak havoc.
In Abidjan, so much is at stake. Can hotheaded young men and hardliners on both sides be restrained? If so, perhaps Ivorians can break bread tomorrow in peace and security. Without The Baker turning up the heat on the oven.