By Henry Gombya
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has told a news conference in Washington DC that the arrest of former Cote d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo should send a strong signal to dictators and tyrants throughout the region and around the world. “They may not disregard the voice of their own people in free and fair elections, and there will be consequences for those who cling to power.”
Mrs Clinton was speaking shortly after Gbagbo was arrested at the presidential palace where he had repeatedly refused calls for him to accept the will of the people and let the winner of last year’s presidential election replace him.
He was offered a job in the United States by non-other than the world’s most powerful man, Barack Obama. Kenyan Prime Minister would have relished the limelight of convincing him to leave power peacefully and perhaps live in the suburbs of Nairobi. He refused all of these offers and as you read this, Laurent Gbagbo, until Monday morning still the incumbent president of Cote d’Ivoire, is lying in a safe place under guard by United Nations (UN) peace-keeping troops, many of whom had become cannon fodder for bullets fired by his soldiers.
In a move spearheaded by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the suffering that the Ivoirian people have undergone since their choice for president was refused to take office by Gbagbo, suddenly came to an end Monday afternoon when forces of the internationally-recognised winner of last year’s elections, Alassane Ouattara, with the help of French Special Forces acting under the auspices of the office of the UN boss, finally stormed the presidential palace in Abidjan and found Gbagbo cowering in a filthy basement he has been sharing with his family, friends and a rag-tag army.
Stripped of dignity and power, Gbagbo appeared on national TV sweating profusely from God knows what. A hand of a security man was seen quickly taking off the handcuffs he had been wearing before being brought in front of TV cameras. We had earlier correctly reported here that Gbagbo had been arrested by French Special Forces bringing to an end his sorry leadership that has seen thousands of his own countrymen killed simply because he could not accept that anybody else but him could win an election.
“The head of the snake has been cut off,” said one soldier loyal to elected President Alassane Ouattara. “Gbagbo’s militia will simply vanish now. The war is over.” “It’s great,” said another man. “We are just so happy, and so relieved. The war is finished now.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Gbagbo’s detention saying it had brought to an end months of unnecessary conflict. He promised that the UN would support the new government. US President Barack Obama also welcomed his capture, and called on armed groups in Ivory Coast to lay down their arms to boost the chances of a democratic future. He added that victims and survivors of violence in the country deserved accountability for the crimes committed against them.
In a statement on TV, the new President appealed to Ivoirians to “abstain from all reprisals and violence”. He vowed that Gbagbo, his wife Simone and his “collaborators” would be investigated by the judicial authorities. Ouattara was also quick to tell the watching international community that the personal security of Gbagbo and his family would be guaranteed, he said. The country, he said, had just turned a painful page in its history and was entering a new era of peace and hope.
Cote d’Ivoire’s new leader faces allegations of atrocities by both his forces and those of Gbagbo. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people may have been killed and at least 100,000 have fled the country since the end of the elections last year. UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy confirmed that Mr Gbagbo and his wife were under UN police guard at bizarrely, Abidjan’s Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has been hiding since he was refused by Gbagbo from taking office after the elections.
Appearing on what the BBC called a ‘pro-Ouattara TV, Gbagbo was shown sitting in a room, looking dazed but apparently uninjured, wearing an open shirt and white vest. The same TV channel broadcast a message from the deposed leader in which he called for an end to hostilities. “I hope that we stop the fighting and get into the civilian part of the crisis, and that we end it quickly so the country can go back to normal,” he said. Just imagine the number of lives he would have saved had he said this just after the dispute started last year.
UN Secretary General ban Ki-Moon said UN and French forces had acted strictly within the framework of a UN resolution aimed at protecting the civilian population. He said he wanted to speak to “President Alassane Ouattara” as soon as possible. “This is an end of a chapter that should never have been,” he added. “We have to help them to restore stability, rule of law, and address all humanitarian and security issues.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) was quoted by the BBC as saying that atrocities allegedly committed by forces loyal to Mr Ouattara may amount to crimes against humanity. The group accused them of killing hundreds of civilians and raping more than 20 in a string of villages in the west of the country as they swept through as part of a rapid military offensive. Mr Ouattara’s representative at the United Nations in New York has denied the allegations. HRW added: “Mr Gbagbo should not be granted “golden exile” following his arrest.” Laurent Gbagbo has been credibly implicated in crimes against humanity and other atrocities for which he should be held to account,” the group’s Africa director, Daniel Bekele, said in a statement. “He should not be granted a golden exile in a country that would shield him from national or international prosecution.”
The BBC’s John James in the central city of Bouake said: “As the news spread, thousands of people rushed to the roundabout in the city centre to the sound of young men honking their motorbikes. Women danced up and down the boulevard waving branches and singing. ‘We heard today that they’ve caught Gbagbo. We don’t like Gbagbo. That’s why we’re happy. They’ve caught Gbagbo today. We’re so happy,’ one person said. Another added: ‘What has just happened is the second independence day of Cote d’Ivoire. But it doesn’t mean that the war is over – peace will not come if all the militia have not been arrested.’ But not everyone was in the mood to celebrate. ‘There have been too many deaths because of this. Gbagbo has killed too many,’ a third person said. Ivory Coast’s second city voted overwhelmingly for Mr Ouattara in the first round, only to see Mr Gbagbo attempt to cancel their votes in the second round.”