Gen. Guei's Ignoble Escape
By Tom Kamara
Oct 26, 2000
Africa is awakening. An era has ended. Truly, the time of the people has come. Devoid of client masters, Africa's dictators have been left on their own to face the wrath of their people. The Ivory Coast's day of history is a warning to all thieves dependent on the gun as their protector to take note. Gone are the days when intimidation was a convenient political tool. All Africa must be proud of Ivory Coast's victory, an inspiration for millions others still languishing under the yoke of inept men of brutality.
In an unprecedented show of courage anywhere in Africa, Ivorians have regained their dignity by chasing a greedy, dishonorable General, their Slobodan Milosevic, into exile, thus avoiding the specter of their country becoming a refugee-producing state like Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc.
This unusual African victory was not without a price. It wouldn't have been possible without the courage of the ordinary people who preferred democracy to any type of enlightened rule of the Generals or "strong men." About nine persons were sacrificed in a massive show of people's power necessary to send the General fleeing. Laurent Gagbo's duty is not to disappoint those who died to prevent the soldiers from stealing his victory. It will be a difficult task, but it must be done.
It was evident that soon, the General's house of cards, built on illusions and deceptions, would come down crumbling. Lacking the all-important ethnic regalia in African politics, a viable political machine, and burdened with a divided, greedy Army, his fate was sealed. What was deemed his main support base, the military, the men and women who hauled him from obscurity and made him their chief expecting handsome rewards in material terms, split, disappointing those who theorized that without Guei as president, the soldiers would intervene against any victor to preserve their interests. Although he had dished out millions of CFA in public funds to appease his recruiters, the soldiers could simply not withstand the share force of people's power. Houphouet, believing that a smaller Army was a safety valve against coups, and a beneficiary of French military protection, kept his Army small for decades. But no matter how many storm troopers Guei had, his was a fruitless battle. With all the tanks available, he could not rule a country that was bitterly against him.
Gen. Guei, not astonishingly intended to do just that---be a president no one wanted. He opted to gamble his fate and that of the country, the richest in sub-Saharan Africa, and until recently, the most stable. Hailed in the Western media for staging a "good coup" 10 months ago, Guei had already opened the gate of destabilization by dissolving the National Electoral Commission (CNE) and declaring himself president despite prior warnings from Gbagbo that to do so would mean trouble.
But times have changed. If coup makers were wined and dined before by powerful countries seeking their own national interests, such countries no longer had national interests worth preserving under unpopular regimes. The US, and the country's colonial ex-master France, which kept a parental eye on Abidjan through contingents of troops to forestall coups endemic in other parts of the continent, condemned the General, a man who came to power over clichés of transparency, democratization and fairness but turned out to be a con artist. Paris said it would take "all appropriate measures" to ensure that democracy prevails. Nowhere to turn, no master to serve, he took to his heels like fleeing thief he is.
And with fresh inspiration from the Serbs, Ivorians took no chances in depriving the General from snatching the victory that was resoundingly theirs. But unlike the Serbian Police who refused to shoot their own citizens for a dictator, Ivorians were met heavily armed killer-soldiers who had unsuccessfully intimidated voters to accept their candidate or accept instability. The difference between a trigger-happy greedy, underpaid, underfed African soldier and his European counterpart in terms respecting lives is just too wide. Nevertheless, Ivorians, prepared to invest in their prosperity which has made them the envy of many African countries, challenged their thugs in uniforms in order to avoid a greater calamity under the rule of thugs.
Shortly after the polls closed Monday, the opposition' Front Populaire Ivoriens' (FPI) Laurent Gbagbo, a university professor who has built his following amongst the youths and the underprivileged, claimed victory, a claim backed by the polls, according to observers. But like all inept soldiers bent on using violence for political dividends, the General refused to honor the people's voice by counterclaiming victory outside the verdict of the National Electoral Commission he disbanded. His frame of reference was his successful masterminding of the exclusion of key opponents through Kangaroo court decisions. Now, he was confident the condemnations would stop while his illegitimate rule continued. But his worst enemy, his enormous error, is time and history. Africa is far beyond the 60s, 70s and 80s, the golden era of fat belly soldiers who saw politics as means of making a fast buck and plunged the continent in endless coups backed by selfish masters now paying lip service to democracy and justice as Africans die in their hundreds of thousands while millions are refugees.
But the era of challenging gunmen in politics has come. They no longer have interested masters. When he seized power, Gen. Guei said his takeover was not a coup but a popular revolution. Had it been a coup, he said, he would have informed Washington or Paris for their approval. Well, the two countries made it clear that he had to go. He had no choice. He did not get their approval this time.
Ivory Coast's day of redemption is a memorable day in all its splendor, a day of reckoning for men who have used the people's resources against them by keeping them in bondage for personal gains. After all, Ivorians have saved their country from the carnage flaring around them in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc. by standing firmly against an electoral thief. The rest of the world, if truly desirous of democracy and therefore development, must take note and encourage such mass actions in countries still under the rule of the gun camouflaged as democracy.
The Ivorian example of mass and organized defiance, immediately after the fall of Milosevic under similar conditions, is one of the real guarantors of democracy and transparency in Africa, not the many lengthy human rights reports calling on dictators to be merciful towards their victims. Crooked, greedy and inept men relying on weapons to steal elections will now have to think twice before being confident of their brutal political paradigms which have sufficed since independence.
Perhaps Guei suffered from a serious mental relapse in believing that he would continuously enjoy the dancing and singing that greeted him when the people saw him as their hope against corrupt politicians in the Konan Bedie clan. Perhaps he deceived himself in believing that because he overthrew a despised leader, Ivorians would crown him their king. Or perhaps he felt because he commanded men whose only service to society is their ability to kill defenseless people and loot their resources, he was beyond challenge. But whatever the case, even if he had grabbed power through the smoking AK-47, his days were numbered. He has lost his place in respectable Ivorian history. He was a condemned man.
But the handwriting of the General's ambition has long been on the wall since he emerged from obscurity to grace. One of his first political pilgrimages was to Monrovia, now West Africa's "Mecca" of brute politics and anarchy, to seek Charles Taylor's advice in how to become president, at all costs. He emerged from there exuberant, announcing that indeed the Liberian warlord was a "great warrior." But the people united in one cause are greater than any imaginary "great warrior." Gen. Guei, the man who led the military offensive against Ivorian students during Houphouet's reign and ended with a reward of a beautiful villa from the president even as his troops raped students at the University of Abidjan, discovered this time that his lucky days were over. Events indicated that whatever advice he may have received from Taylor the "great warrior" was fatal. The Ivory Coast is not Liberia and Ivorians are in search of a redeeming leader, not a "great warrior" Liberians desired and got.
To a large extent, Ivorians are beneficiaries of the anarchy around them. From Ghana to Mali, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, etc., ill-prepared soldiers have taken their people down the drain of chaos and poverty. In 1985, Liberia was at the same crossroads as today's Ivory Coast. By all accounts, Samuel Doe lost the elections against Jackson F. Doe, (no relations). Taylor's rebel later executed Jackson F. Doe allegedly upon Taylor's orders. But with the backing of Reagan's US, Gen. Doe survived the people's disenchantment. Moreover, Liberians, in their usual detached, "God will help" mentality, saw no reason to take their own destiny into their hands by storming the streets to retrieve their stolen victory. This one great act of cowardice and lack of political leadership cleared the path for the cycle of horrors in which the country has sunk. There were burnt ballots everywhere. Concubines were selected to count the votes, not members of the electoral commission. Everyone knew Gen. Doe had lost the elections. But no one dared organize the people to demand their victory, particularly after Washington announced satisfaction over the results since, it said, Doe claimed only a magnanimous 51% of the votes. The result is a devastating war (with the backing of this very Ivory Coast now demanding and dying for democracy) that is consuming the sub-region. Furthermore, in 1997, despite glaring irregularities in the results that declared a Doe protégé, turned foe, warlord Taylor winner following his threats to resume war if he lost (irregularities included confessions of Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers casting ballots for Taylor), there was no one courageous to defy Nigerian tanks in saving the country from its current abyss. Nigeria's Gen. Victor Malu, upon Gen. Abacha's direct orders, had threatened to "crush" anyone who challenged their verdict. And again, with the blessings of another American Jimmy Carter, no Liberian was brave enough to say no to fraud and challenge Nigerian tanks.
But Guei proved himself a political chameleon. When he wanted to win over the Baoles, the late President Houphouet Boigny's powerful tribesmen, he wooed them, visiting the late patriarch's burial place to pay homage. After failing to steal Houphouet's and Bedie's Parti Democratic de Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI) to carry him as its candidate, he manipulated to ban the party. Although his immediate comrades in coup were key men from the north, he charged them with plotting to assassinate him, banning their candidate Alasane Quattara and his Rally of Republicans. In the end, he felt deceivingly comfortable of defeating Laurent Gbagbo, a man whose name is synonymous to opposition politics in the Ivory Coast. Gbagbo is credited for forcing multiparty politics on the late, reluctant Houphouet, becoming a challenger when no one else dared challenge the "Father of the nation."
Now, the challenge confronting Gbagbo is extinguishing the spreading flames of xenophobia that have contributed to instability, and reversing the plummeting economy to satisfy the men and women who stormed the streets to ensure his victory. His is not an enviable job. But Guei, prior to the polls, said the "winner will win." The winner has won and the job of reconciliation so vital in convincing northerners they are not a target of exclusion. The polls were not the most transparent. More than 50% of voters, perhaps Alasane Quattara's backers, stayed away. And during the formative of the Guei coup, Gagbo seemed to have sided with the xenophobia against the barred Opposition leader Quattara. In power, he must show that he stands above the platform "iviorite" (a school of thought that defines who is, and is not an Ivorian) of Bedie and Guei. This is his challenge.