Exclusive interview with Cote d’Ivoire’s president Laurent Gbagbo
By Soumanou Salifou
It was Saturday mid-afternoon, but it looked quite like a weekday at President Laurent Gbagbo’s office. Visitors, including some foreigners like me, were waiting patiently to see the Ivorian head of state. Suddenly, someone shouted: “The President of the Republic!” Everyone around me rose, and I did the same. Before I realized, there was the tall, well-rested head of state dressed casually in an elegant white shirt, walking straight toward me before stopping to shake hands with two Arab-looking visitors whom he asked one of his aides to take to another room to have an “appéritif.” After shaking my hand warmly like a long-time pal, he said: “Let’s go to work.” So we did, and I had the most relaxed presidential interview in my decades-long career.
The African: How strong is Cote d’Ivoire’s democracy, and what are your plans to make it stronger?
President Gbagbo: We have to be clear about one thing. Cote d’Ivoire, like many African countries, is not yet a democratic state. We are a democratizing state. We experienced thirty years of single-party regime from 1960 to 1990. We experienced ten years of fairly chaotic democratization, which culminated in ten months of military regime. These are the negative factors. On the positive side, we truly have a population that is thirsting for liberty, democratization and transparency. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the cabinet that I have assembled to carry on the democratization work and to complete the process. That’s our primary mission.
Democracy is not simply a matter of multiple political parties. Democracy is not only a matter of multiple workers union. Democracy is also – and probably more so than anything else – a matter of how the institutions function to uphold the Constitution. If the judges become really independent and do their job without being influenced by the head of state or by any other members of the executive branch, then, yes, we can say that we have made a big step. If someone is jailed after a specific indictment by the judiciary authorities and, after being judged, is found guilty or acquitted, then we would have made a big step on the way to democratization. But, if people find themselves in jail with no indictment, without a coherent and clear trial, without lawyers’ assistance, then we would have walked backward.
We are a democratization country, as well as a developing country. For me to say that we are now a democracy would be dishonest on my part. Specifically, it is my role to make sure that Cote d’Ivoire become a democratic state. I’ll do my best in that respect. There are good reasons to hope that we will win the battle.
The social fracture that permeated Cote d’Ivoire before your election deepened after that election, and efforts are now underway to reconcile Ivorians with themselves. Mr. President, please tell us about those efforts.
I would not use the phrase “social fracture,” because the social fracture does exist, but it is not what you have in mind. The social fracture lies in the fact that since the time the social crisis has worsened, the rich have become awfully richer while the poor have become poorer. This has allowed HIV/AIDS – in short all the so-called “poor people diseases” – to spread in a devastating manner, so much so that today, about 10% of the population – that is more than one million people – carry the virus. These are the elements of the social fracture. I think we must be clear about that, too.
I have been observing this fracture since when I was 15 years old, that is since our independence in 1960. At first, theAgnis [an ethnic group in the eastern part of the country] felt that they were excluded and marginalized. The Sanwis, a sub-group among the Agnis, wanted to secede at that time. Later, the Bétés [an ethnic group in the midwest] felt that they were excluded and marginalized (I am a Bété myself). Today, the people in the north feel that they are excluded and marginalized (they felt so before my election and still do today).
I am not taking these developments lightly, but I realize that these developments go around the country, from one region to another, depending on the moments. We have to study the causes of this fracture if we really want to build a nation. That is why, after the cycle of elections – the referendum to adopt the Constitution in July, the presidential election held in October, and the legislative election held in December 2000 – I launched the Operation “National Reconciliation.” The objective is not to hide the problems, because there would be no reconciliation without the truth being told. To the contrary, the Ivorians need to be courageous enough to expose the problems this country is facing. By exposing the country’s problems, we thus take a big step toward solving them.
But is there hope that all the sons and daughters of the nation will actually take part in the efforts to find the solution? Recent developments point in the opposite direction.
I’m doing my job as the head of state and everyone is doing his/her job. However, when one freely chooses to go down a path, one has to bear the consequences of that choice. As the head of state, I believe that the construction of democracy and the construction of the nation must be the ultimate objective of our actions, and that these two actions will be undertaken on the basis of the Constitution. That is a duty for me. The other partners decide where they stand as far as that duty is concerned. Anyone who says: “Yes, I am ready to discuss and to build democracy and the nation,” will be judged by history. Anyone who says: “No, I won’t,” will be judged, too.
I would like to cast a look back at your meeting in Lome this past April with Cote d’Ivoire’s former prime minister Alassane Ouattara. After that meeting [which focused on reconciliation], you made some comments that seem to indicate that you didn’t want to go fully in the direction chosen by the other party. Please explain that to us.
Listen, I didn’t go there to negotiate. I hate dishonesty. That’s my nature. I am loyal to the people that I deal with. This is what happened. Mr. Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary General, asked O.A.U.’s chairman Gen. Gnassingbé Eyadéma to arrange a meeting between Mr. Ouattara and me, at the request of Ouattara. These are people for whom I have a lot of respect – Kofi Annan and Gen. Eyadéma. I was available each time Ouattara himself wanted to see me.
So I go to Lome, and we have a discussion in Eyadéma’s presence about issues that he [Ouattara] raises. We really discuss in a brotherly manner, without clouds, about odds and ends. We even eat together with President Eyadéma. The foreign ministers prepare a final communiqué that they read to us the next morning in front of the press, and I come back home. Then, at home, I learn that Mr. Ouattara has declared on a radio that he raised two conditions during our discussions.
First of all, that is not true, because he did not raise any condition at any time. Since I did not meet with him alone, you can check that with President Eyadéma. Secondly, in order for him to raise conditions, we must be in negotiations, which we are not. I didn’t go to Lome to negotiate, because I am not asking for anything. That’s the reason why I made that point very clearly, by stating that the Ivorian state that I represent wherever I go is not in a negotiation with anybody.
Even in the period of reconciliation, the Ivorian state is not in a negotiation with anyone. The state is asking the children of the nation to sit around the negotiation table and say, individually, what they feel is wrong in Cote d’Ivoire. The state, and only the state, will look for remedies to the problems that will be diagnosed.