The Simon Cowell of dictators

Can Gbagbo win?

Yesterday the Guardian had a pretty good article about the Ivory Coast, impressing me by managing to compare Gbagbo with Simon Cowell and yet keeping the article entirely serious.

“He is like the Simon Cowell of dictators,” said Antony Goldman, head of the London-based risk analysis firm PM Consulting, who met Gbagbo in 1997. “He spent the first 40 years of life as a fringe figure; he was political wallpaper and seemed destined always to be an irrelevance. Success came late in life and now he and the people around him are clinging on to it with all the strength they can.”

Other interesting quotes – though without any pop-culture references – include:

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, put it bluntly: “Gbagbo is a big and blustery character, a bit of demagogue, but his wife is really scary. When the civil war started, she was saying things like, ‘We cannot have Côte d’Ivoire ruled by foreigners’, which is just language for northerners. His wife and other allies do seem to be driven by racism towards the north. The idea of the country being handed over to a northern Muslim is terrifying.”

The Gbagbo camp’s intentions at this stage leave Dowden baffled. “These are all smart, Sorbonne-educated, sophisticated international people, so I don’t know how they think they can get away with this. If it was a jumped-up sergeant major or colonel who had never been outside the country, it would be easier to understand. I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which he might win and I can’t. If it gets really nasty, he’s going to end up in the Hague.”

I think that just because Gbagbo’s camp are international people the sanctions are hitting unusually hard. Despite their anti-French/anti-“neocolonialism” rethoric they enjoy their holidays in France and have bank accounts and assets in Europe and the US, and even children being schooled in the US.

Still, unfortunately I can image scenarios where Gbagbo can win:
(And by win I mean staying in power in practice in the southern part of the Ivory Coast for many years)

No military intervention

If the ECOWAS and the African Union just talk about a military intervention but never actually take action, then Gbagbo has a chance of staying as de facto president.   I guess he won’t have access to the presidential aircraft or his assets abroad, and have no diplomatic representation (except maybe in Angola), and limited access to the central bank, but as long as Gbagbo has enough resources to keep security forces, army and milita loyal to him, he can stay in power.

Obtaining those resources over the long term without the central bank won’t be straightforward, but with control of the port, airport, tax authorities and cocoa and oil production it looks doable.  Guess it will be the usual dictator-under-sanction situation where all resources are funneled to the army leaving the people to suffer.

I think ECOWAS and the African Union mean business, but I may be wrong, and then there are doubts over ECOWAS capabilities.

From Christian Science Monitor:

While the threat of a military intervention creates pressure on Gbagbo, Africa security analyst Peter Pham said there are “serious doubts that ECOWAS has the wherewithal to carry it out.”

“None of the ECOWAS countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a ‘decapitation strike’ to remove the regime leadership,” said Pham, who is the senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. “That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties.”

Even if there is no ECOWAS intervention Gbagbo is not out of the woods, as he needs to keep his loyal military forces stronger than the Force Nouvelles in the north who seem quite determined to launch an attack against the south (if they manage to stay reasonably united).  At the moment Gbagbo’s forces seem to be strong enough, but over time with limited resources and Force Nouvelles being supported by neighbouring countries hostile to Gbagbo, things may change.

To stay in power over the longer term Gbagbo would be greatly helped by creating divisions within the ECOWAS or the AU.  That looks difficult at the moment, but he may be betting that it changes if ECOWAS, UN or French forces shoot on unarmed pro-Gbagbo demonstrators.

Doing a Putin

If none of the above works out for Gbagbo, he could make an agreement where Ouattara becomes President and Gbagbo takes the role as Prime Minister. Then he makes sure that the real power lies with the Prime Minister, by having people loyal to him running key state functions and keeping de facto control of the security forces.

Gbagbo seems already at the moment trying to purge anyone who doesn’t support him from state institutions.  With Gbagbo still in the government it might be difficult for Ouattara to reverse the “Gbagboisation” of state institutions in practice, even if the agreement is likely to address this issue.


One thought on “The Simon Cowell of dictators

  1. Jonas

    The last alternative seems rather more like doing a “Mugabe” than a “Putin”. After all, Medvedev was hand-picked by Putin and has never posed any real threat to his power.

    Interesting blog, btw!

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