Exclusive: A brief encounter with the despot in room 470
Independent reporter crosses war-torn Abidjan on a journey that ends at the door of Ivory Coast's deposed leader
Wednesday 13 April 2011
The guest on the fourth floor of the Hotel de Golf is a well-guarded man. Laurent Gbagbo, who was forced here after a violent assault dragged him from his bunker and ended his protracted defiance of his country's voters, was holed up in a wing walled off at the lobby from the rest of the sprawling resort.
But outside and around the edge of the swimming pool is the side entrance. Soldiers of at least five nations swarm the stairwells that lead upstairs from the sweltering heat outside. Jordanian, Senegalese, Pakistani and Togolese peacekeepers, as well as soldiers from at least three Ivorian factions, guard the man who still hasn't admitted he is no longer president of this country.
At the entrance to the fourth floor, the wall of guards breaks to allow through Choi Young-jin, the envoy and friend of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who was sent to Ivory Coast to deal with the crisis created by Mr Gbagbo's intransigence. The door to Room 470 is opened to reveal a scrum of soldiers, and there on the bed is the briefest glimpse of the 65-year-old who held this country to ransom on his journey from radical history professor to hackneyed African strongman. Then the door is slammed and the message is passed that Mr Gbagbo is in "no condition to receive the media yet".
Like so many people in the devastated port city of Abidjan, Mr Gbagbo was adjusting to the new reality created by his abrupt detention. Earlier in the day it had been Mamadou Toure who was just getting his feet under the table. Sitting in a ransacked police headquarters in southern Abidjan he had a gun clip and an organisational flowchart on his desk. As the new police chief for the area, his own name sat in the top box.
Wearing a bullet-proof vest and shouting into a gold mobile phone, he was getting accustomed to being called "mon general". The same boys who were loitering with weapons on the street corner on Monday in basketball shirts and flip-flops were pulling on uniforms fresh from their plastic wrappers. Discarding filthy vests daubed with defiant guerrilla resistance slogans, they posed for each other in camouflage caps.
In the courtyard thousands of police files and smashed cabinets were mixed with torn uniforms and human excrement rotting under a cloud of flies.
The "general" could arrange an armed escort to the Hotel de Golf, we were told, but an intermediary quietly explained that he would be "doing a favour" and might later ask for a small "gift" in return.
Outside the station, the newly minted police were loading themselves into a 4x4 with the tailgate swung open and a machine-gunner hoisted inside. This is an Ivory Coast police escort.
On the approach to the Charles de Gaulle bridge which links the southern islands of the Abidjan lagoon with the city centre, where the day before ragged-trousered militia had waved down the few cars that dared to move with AK-47s, a naked man slept curled into a ball under the flyover. By sunset boys would be playing football in the mud where armed gangs had roamed.
Across the bridge which had been a snipers' alley, Abidjan's distinctive orange taxis were once again on the move. Amid the skyscrapers of the Plateau business district were the first signs of life. The refugees who had hidden in their hundreds in the Modernist cathedral on the hill were coming out to watch the rebirth of the city. Nearly 2,000 people sheltered here from the war.
Entering Cocody, where a column of French tanks rolled in on Monday to batter their way into Mr Gbagbo's compound and drag him from his burning residence, people picked their way through mountains of stinking rubbish. Terrified motorists who didn't trust the white flags and bags tied to their vehicles drove with their windows wound down and their arms raised. Burnt-out vehicles with charred corpses testified to the battle that had raged. In the neighbourhood where Gbagbo loyalists made their last stand, unidentified soldiers crowded around a "technical" – a pick-up truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. They were loading looted furniture on to its back. Its windscreen was smashed with bullet holes. On either side smoke billowed from the apartment blocks where people left without electricity cooked whatever they could find on charcoal stoves.
The Riviera district, where the man who won Ivory Coast's election lived under siege for most of the past four months, is only a few minutes' drive down blast-damaged roads. Bodies remain from the fighting in which witnesses on this street reported seeing soldiers strip local youths to the waist before pushing them out in front as human shields.
At the first checkpoint a soldier supporting the new President, Alassane Ouattara, in a red beret and swathed in hand grenades, hitches a lift. He laughs heartily as we pass election posters proclaiming "Gbagbo 100 per cent president" of Ivory Coast.
The exhausted remains of the forces loyal to Mr Ouattara were lying among their battle wagons yesterday on the fringes of a golf course ringed with bougainvillaea and razor wire. The grass on the fairways has grown waist high during the crisis. The hotel itself has been transformed by four months of siege into a foetid, chaotic military camp. Washing hangs from the tennis courts and a riot of army insignias mingle together in the throng. A multinational force is camped out in stinking tents around the swimming pool with its water slides and concrete elephants. A pair of living giant tortoises hunker in the sandpit.
The UN peacekeepers who guarded Mr Ouattara during the struggle with Mr Gbagbo now amble around with ragged Ouattara fighters decked in Che Guevara shirts and voodoo war charms. The crackle of gunfire across the lagoon prompted a smile from a passing Polish soldier. "That's just applause," he said.
Mr Gbagbo, who the day before had looked so startled in his vest in television pictures, was staying only one floor above the man who beat him in last November's election. Coming out of Room 470, the UN's Mr Choi was adamant that the defeated president would have both his "dignity" and his "physical safety" protected. But the former strongman's dignity was already being traded for expediency just three floors below. There all his joint chiefs of staff, who defected one by one, were seated like a row of schoolboys, waiting to swear allegiance to the IMF economist whom many had dismissed as a technocrat ill-equipped for power.
The biggest betrayal of all was reserved for last. Philippe Mangou, the fiery military chief-of-staff, who had only recently vowed that his soldiers would fight to the last man and who called on the "Young Patriots" militia to "pick up the weapons from my dead soldiers' hands and continue the fight", stood up at the podium.
His solemn oath was undone with the stamp of his heels and a loud salute to the new President of the Republic. A handshake followed as one veteran of the volatile politics of this West African nation summed up the feeling: "That's the Ivory Coast for you," she said with a shrug.
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