Rough start as Ivory Coast enters Ouattara era

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French patrol in Abidjan, 12 April
Image caption,
Alassane Ouattara may face more questions about the role of the French in his success

President Alassane Ouattara's first full day in power was marked by sporadic gunfire and mortar rounds.

After the deafening cacophony of heavy weapons that marked Monday's ousting of his rival Laurent Gbagbo, Tuesday was by comparison quiet.

But the continued fighting shows the extent of the challenge facing the international banker-turned politician who now leads Ivory Coast.

There were reports of shooting taking place in the largely pro-Gbagbo suburb of Yopougon; in the upmarket Cocody area where Mr Gbagbo's former residence is; and in the central Plateau business district.

The shooting was generally believed to be between forces loyal to Mr Ouattara - now known as the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (or FRCI) and remnants of the pro-Gbagbo army and militia.

For the past few days I have, for security reasons, along with a number of other foreign and Ivorian journalists, been staying in the French military base next to the main airport in the Port Bouet area of southern Abidjan.

In this area there was sporadic gunfire and the sound of at least one mortar round being launched in the direction of a university campus.

Large numbers of students associated with the Fesci student union joined militias loyal to Mr Gbagbo, so it is probable this shooting was associated with them.

It was too dangerous to investigate these incidents on the ground.

Foreign journalists are generally condemned by Mr Gbagbo's supporters because they have been perceived as backing the United Nations-certified election results that saw Mr Ouattara declared the winner.

In the time I have been here several journalists have had close calls - either having their cars shot at, or being harassed by militias close to Mr Gbagbo.

Humiliated Gbagbo

Meanwhile, at the Golf Hotel in the plush Riviera district, one room is reserved for a president, another for a prisoner.

Laurent Gbagbo was taken to the Golf on Monday after he was captured along with about 50 of his close family and associates.

A Ouattara-controlled TV station, TCI, showed pictures of Mr Gbagbo sitting on the edge of his bed, his casual patterned shirt a stark contrast to the bright yellow-painted walls of the hotel room.

French television showed a more animated scene in another room - fighters loyal to Mr Ouattara, in combat uniforms, were taking turns to have their picture taken with the humiliated former leader.

The next day, Tuesday, President Ouattara began the highly sensitive operation of rebuilding the national army.

This complex political task involves deciding which officers to appoint to the FRCI, which to exclude and - possibly - which to prosecute.

President Ouattara has already said that Mr Gbagbo will be investigated for potential charges of war crimes. If this is the case, it would seem logical to also prosecute military officers who carried out the orders.

But of course President Ouattara will not want to alienate too many officers who control armed men. He will have to walk a political and military tightrope to get the balance right.

Another sensitive issue Mr Ouattara will have to face is the manner in which he came to power.

Military sources concluded a few days before Mr Gbagbo was arrested that there was a stalemate in central Abidjan between the forces of Mr Gbagbo and those loyal to Mr Ouattara.

Image caption,
Mr Ouattara, here with ex-Gbagbo chief of staff Philippe Mangou, must heal differences

The FRCI may have swept south from its strongholds in the north with lightning speed, but when they reached Abidjan, Mr Gbagbo's tactic of hiding in a fortified bunker stalled them.

When I visited an area near to the presidential residence in Cocody district shortly before the arrest of Mr Gbagbo that certainly seemed to be the case.

There was heavy fighting in at least three places - a paramilitary training school, a university campus and a police station - all within about 1km of the residence.

Well-informed sources in the area said the fighting was a see-saw affair with neither group winning a decisive advantage.

That all changed on Sunday night when French and United Nations helicopter gunships roared off from the French military camp to attack targets around the residence and other locations.

At dawn on Monday a large armoured French convoy drove out of the camp and Mr Gbagbo's fate as an ex-leader was sealed.

The French, who are by far the best equipped military force in Ivory Coast, took up positions along the appropriately named Boulevard de France, a road which splits Cocody north to south.

Their aim was to occupy the areas south of the boulevard - where Mr Gbagbo's residence is.

The French achieved their aim.

Post-colonial sensitivities

What happened next is the controversial part. Mr Gbagbo's people say he was arrested by French special forces. French diplomatic and military sources vociferously deny this - saying they secured the area for the FRCI to make the arrest.

"There was not a single French soldier on the ground at Mr Gbagbo's residence", said the French military spokesman in Ivory Coast, Maj Frederic Daguillon.

This may be true.

But it is also undoubtedly true that the French mounted the military action that allowed the arrest to take place.

This fact means that Ivorian nationalists may seek to taunt Mr Ouattara with the label that he was installed by foreign forces.

That doesn't necessarily make him a "puppet" of the French, of course - but it's almost certain Mr Gbagbo's supporters will seek to portray him as one.

The French foresaw this possibility - hence their public modesty at the significance of their role.

If post-colonial sensitivities were not so acute, the whole affair could be portrayed completely differently.

The French could easily be portrayed as the heroes of the day; they could easily present themselves as the ones who helped kickstart democracy in Ivory Coast.

After all, they were the only ones with the military muscle and the political courage to try to resolve a situation that was fast becoming more akin to Mogadishu than Abidjan.