Abidjan – Three west African leaders met incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum from the Ecowas regional bloc to step down or face removal by force.
But Gbagbo’s government signalled he was unlikely to agree to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, considered by regional and world powers to be the legitimate winner of last month’s presidential election.
Gbagbo’s camp originally said it would welcome the visiting presidents – Benin’s Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde – “as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey”.
But shortly before the meeting, his government warned it would not tolerate any meddling in its affairs.
“Let’s avoid political delinquency. No international institution has the right to intervene by force to impose a president in a sovereign state,” government spokesperson Ahoua Don Melo told the BBC when asked if Gbagbo would leave.
Post-election violence has killed more than 170 people and threatens to tip the country back into civil war.
Some newspapers said Gbagbo’s government’s insistence that he won the election and is backed by the Ivory Coast constitution was already a clear sign that he would not heed the ultimatum to step down.
Provisional election results in the world’s largest cocoa grower showed Ouattara winning by 8 percentage points. But the nation’s top court, run by a Gbagbo ally, overturned the results amid allegations of fraud.
The United States and the European Union have slapped a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.
The standoff turned violent this month after Ouattara supporters tried to seize the state broadcaster’s building and clashed with security forces. At least 20 people were killed.
Planned rally suspended
After several days of calm, sporadic gunfire was heard on Tuesday morning in the Abidjan neighbourhood of Abobo, a stronghold of Ouattara supporters. A Reuters witness said police were chasing youths who were trying to set up barricades with burning tyres. It was not known if there were any casualties.
A planned mass rally on Wednesday by the powerful pro-Gbagbo “Young Patriot” movement, led by firebrand Charles Ble Goude who is also youth minister in the Gbagbo government, was suspended to allow for negotiations.
“I think the current situation benefits no one. Let’s allow for diplomacy to run its course, that’s why I’m going to cancel the rally tomorrow at Place de la Republique,” Ble Goude told Reuters. He said he would be announcing the suspension of the rally later on national television.
Residents and human rights groups have accused pro-Gbagbo gunmen of extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and torture since the election. The United Nations has condemned the violence.
The election was meant to heal the wounds of a 2002-3 civil war that split the country in two, but experts now fear the dispute over the results could reignite conflict.
The turmoil has pushed cocoa futures to four-month highs amid fears it could eventually disrupt exports. Ivory Coast’s Eurobond hit a record low last week on concern that the country would not meet a $30m bond payment due on December 31.