Gbagbo, Laurent 1945–
Laurent Gbagbo 1945–
President of Côte d’lvoire
Since being granted its independence from France in 1960, Cote d’lvoire, or the Ivory Coast, was led by President Fé Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled under an essentially one-party political system. Once envied by other African nations for its prosperous economy, as the economy turned downward during the latter decades of the twentieth century, a growing group of dissidents became increasingly vocal. During the 1970s, Laurent Gbagbo, a young, charismatic teacher, emerged as a leading voice of resistance.
When Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993 with no real plan for the democratic transfer of power, the country quickly fell into political disarray, leaving room for Gbagbo to eventually rise to power. He was inaugurated as the country’s president in 2000, but his tenure has been marred by accusations of improper elections, which led to widespread political unrest. A revolt in 2002 turned into a stagnated revolution in 2003 that divided the country between the mainly Christian south, where Gbagbo still holds power, and the mainly Muslim north, which is controlled by rebel forces. Under international pressure to form a representative government, Gbagbo has been thus far unwilling or unable to come to terms with opposition leaders. This dissenter-turned-president has yet to pull his country from the grasp of widening ethnic, religious, and political division.
Gbagbo was born on May 31, 1945, in Gagnoa, a major city in west-central Ivory Coast. His parents, Zepe Paul Kou-dou and Gado Marguerite Koudou Paul, belonged to the Bété tribe. Reared in the Roman Catholic faith, Gbagbo is aligned with the Christian south. Gbagbo attended primary school in Agboville and Gagnoa, graduating in June of 1958. He attended intermediate school at St. Dominique Savio in Gagnoa, graduating in June of 1962. In June of 1965 he earned his high school diploma from the Traditional College of Abidjan. After completing his freshman year at the University of Abidjan, Gbagbo enrolled at the University of Lyon in France to study Latin, Greek, and French. His nickname during his school days was “Cicero” because of his love of Latin. He did not finish his degree, however, and returned to the Ivory Coast to complete his undergraduate studies at the University of Abidjan, earning a bachelor’s degree in history in 1969.
At a Glance…
Born on May 31, 1945, in Gagnoa, Ivory Coast; son of Zepe Paul Koudou and Gado Marguerite Koudou Paul; married Jaqueline Chanoos, July 20, 1967 (divorced, June of 1982); married Simone Ehivet, January 19, 1989; children: (from first marriage) Koudou Michel, Gado Lea, (from second marriage) Gado Marie-Patrice, Popo Marie-Laurence, three step-children. Education: University of Abidjan, BA, 1969; University of Paris, Sorbonne, MA, 1970; University of Paris VII, PhD, 1979. Politics: Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Classical College (Lycée Classique), professor of history and geography, 1970-73, education department, 1973-74; Institute of History, Art, and African Archaeology (IHAAA), researcher, 1974-1977, director, 1980-82; Ivorian Popular Front, abroad organization representative, 1983-1988, secretary general, 1988-90; Ivory Coast presidential candidate, 1990; Ivory Coast National Assembly, elected member, 1990-99; president of Ivory Coast, 2000-.
Addresses: Office —Présidence de la République, 01 BP 1354, Abidjan 01, Côte d’lvoire.
Gbagbo was first arrested for his political organizing activities in the Ivory Coast in 1969. After spending two weeks in jail, he returned to France and completed a Master of Arts degree in history at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne in 1970. In the same year he returned to the Ivory Coast to teach history and geography at the University of Abidjan. Within a year Gbagbo found himself in trouble once again for unauthorized teaching, participating in teacher unionism, and publishing materials the government deemed subversive. He was arrested on March 31, 1971, and imprisoned without a trial at the Seguela military camp. After his release in January of 1974, he briefly worked for the department of education.
In 1974 Gbagbo became a researcher for the Institute of History, Art, and African Archaeology (IHAAA) at the University of Abidjan. In 1977 he took a break from his responsibilities at the IHAAA to complete his doctoral studies at the University of Paris VII at Sorbonne. After successfully defending his doctoral thesis, he received his Doctorate of Philosophy in June of 1979. On returning to his duties at the IHAAA, Gbagbo was named the institute’s director in 1980, a position he held for two years.
During his tenure at the IHAAA, Gbagbo’s reputation as a dissident continued to grow. He was highly critical of the Ivory Coast’s essentially one-party system that had concentrated political power in the hands of Houphouët-Boigny. In 1982 Gbagbo began his clandestine organization of the unauthorized Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). He also secretly published and distributed a speech critical of the government that called for a multi-party system. These activities enraged Houphouët-Boigny, who also blamed Gbagbo for organizing a wide-spread teachers’ strike. Coming under increasing government scrutiny, Gbagbo went into voluntary exile in France in 1982.
Gbagbo continued to organize the FPI from abroad and, in 1983, published his political reform plan for the Ivory Coast as Côte d’lvoire: pour une Alternative Démocratique. Although he was officially granted political asylum by France in 1985, the following year France’s new prime minister, Jacques Chirac, who was unhappy with Gbagbo’s socialist activities in France, pressured Gbagbo to leave. Accordingly, Gbagbo returned to his homeland on September 13, 1988.
Within a week of Gbagbo’s return to the Ivory Coast, the FPI held its inaugural congress and elected Gbagbo as the party’s secretary general. Despite suffering intimidation by members of Houphouët-Boigny’s Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), the FPI held another congress in 1989. Finally, in April of 1990, Houphouët-Boigny succumbed to external pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of whom threatened to withhold funding, by announcing that multi-party elections would be held for the first time in the country’s history. Gbagbo was Houphouët-Boigny’s only opponent on the ballot and was sounded defeated, earning only 18.3 percent of the vote, compared to Houphouët-Boigny’s 81.7 percent. Although Gbagbo and the FPI declared the election was rigged, the Supreme Court refused to consider their demand for a new election. Gbagbo and eight other FPI members did manage to win seats in the National Assembly, but the PDCI continued to dominate the body by holding the remaining 163 seats.
In 1991 large-scale protests erupted in the academic community over planned decreases in teacher’s salaries. The protesters were treated brutally by security forces, and later Houphouët-Boigny’s army chief of staff, General Robert Guei, came under investigation for his part in allowing the brutality. When Houphouët-Boigny publicly supported Guei, declaring that the brutal force employed against the demonstrators was necessary, over 20,000 protesters took to the streets, led by Gbagbo. Three days later Gbagbo was arrested under a law that provided that leaders of public disturbances could be held personally responsible. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but after four months Houphouët-Boigny declared amnesty for all those involved in the protests. Gbagbo was freed on July 31, 1992.
On December 7, 1993, Houphouët-Boigny died of prostate cancer, and control of the country was turned over to the Minister of Finance, Henri Konan Bédié. With little hope of challenging Bédié’s claim to the presidency, Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim from the northern area and Bédié’s strongest opponent, left the Ivory Coast to take a post with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Bédié moved quickly to neutralize Ouattara by introducing legislation that required that all presidential candidates be of pure Ivory Coast descent and have lived in the country for the last five years. Ouattara, currently living in the United States and whose father was from neighboring Burkina Faso, failed to qualify on both counts.
Due to numerous election irregularities attributed to Bédié, both the FPI and the Rally of Republicans (RDR), a new Muslim party organized in the days following Houphouët-Boigny’s death, boycotted the presidential election held in October 1995, leaving the way free for Bédié to easily retain the presidency. Nonetheless, Bédié’s hold on power was becoming increasing perilous. The country’s economy, once a model for all of Africa, had dissolved into disarray. Dissatisfaction remained high in the academic community and was growing rapidly among the overworked and underpay military ranks.
On December 24, 1999, a group of military officers staged a coup and occupied the streets of Abidjan. When they convinced Guei to take up their cause as their leader, Bédié recognized his situation as hopeless and fled. On December 27, 1999, the country came under the military’s control with Guei at the helm. Although Guei promised multi-party elections, he upheld Ouattara’s disqualification and placed himself on the ballot for the presidency. As a result of Ouattara’s exclusion, Gbagbo was once again the only opposition candidate on the ballot.
When early election returns pointed toward Gbagbo as the potential winner, Guei quickly dissolved the Electoral Commission and ordered an official from the Interior Ministry to declare him the winner. The announcement rocked the country and tens of thousands of protesters immediately filled the streets of Abidjan. Military forces loyal to Guei fired on the crowds with little warning and 60 people were killed. As the violence continued over the next several days, the parliamentary police defected to join the protesters, followed by parts of the military forces. Ultimately, Guei was forced to flee, and Gbagbo declared himself president. He was inaugurated on October 26, 2000.
In response to Gbagbo’s claim to the presidency, the RDR immediately called for new elections so that Muslim-supported Ouattara could be placed on the ballot. Most RDR supporters had boycotted the election due to Ouattara’s absence on the ballot, thus they claimed Gbagbo’s election was not, in fact, a result of a fair democratic process. Most of the international community agreed, including the United Nations, South Africa, and most Western countries. Nonetheless, Gbagbo claimed that he was properly elected under the constitution that had been approved by the people of the Ivory Coast. As a result, angry Muslims once again took to the streets, this time clashing with FPI mobs. Over 300 people were killed in the four days following the election.
In January of 2001 opposition forces staged a coup, but government forces responded quickly and the attempt to overthrow the government was thwarted. Gbagbo blamed Muslim northerners and foreigners for instigating the attack, thus further deepening the chasm between the Christian south and Muslim north. Muslims and foreign-born people came under increasing harassment by Gbagbo’s security forces. During 2001, with the European Union refusing to resume financial aid to the country until all sides were represented in negotiations regarding the country’s future, Gbagbo staged several half-hearted attempts to work with oppositional leaders that proved fruitless.
On September 19, 2002, while Gbagbo was in France, mutinous troops took to the streets of three cities. At least 270 people died in the initial conflict, including Guei. Although loyalist forces were able to regain control of Abidjan by September 25, 2002, rebel forces quickly secured control of the northern area of the country. In the ensuing months rebel forces were gaining ground to the south when France stepped in, sending in peace-keeping forces to stand between opposition forces in the north and government forces in the south, bringing the conflict to a virtual stalemate.
During 2003 Gbagbo agreed to meet with facilitators in Paris to open negotiations with opposition forces. However, Gbagbo balked at allowing elections before 2005 as well as rebels’ demands that they be given control of the defense and interior ministries. At the same time, violence continued to erupt within the Ivory Coast, and Gbagbo was tied to the actions of government death squads whose offenses included the massacre of 200 Muslim civilians. The bodies were found in a mass grave by French troops on March 9, 2003. Despite a United Nations report implicating him, Gbagbo hotly denied his involvement in the massacre or other human rights violations.
In April of 2003, Gbagbo signed the Marcoussis Accord, which conceded nine cabinet positions to rebel leaders and a restructuring of citizenship laws to include more Muslim northerners. In exchange, opposition forces would disarm. However, Gbagbo allotted no budgets for the rebel-held cabinet positions and continued to promote the need for strict enforcement of citizenship laws. By October of 2003 tensions were so high that rebel forces gave up all pretense of disarming and opposition leaders pulled out of the government, saying they had been denied any real power.
At the beginning of 2004, Gbagbo continued to retain his slippery grip on the presidency, but he is still faced with the ongoing problems that have plagued the once-stable country for a decade, namely, a decrepit economy that is overburdened by debt, an ongoing political, religious, and ethnic crisis, a stagnated civil war, and pressure from the international community to find a way to integrate all interests into the political process. How Gbagbo responds to these challenges will determine his place in the history of his country.
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