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The Ivorian Endgame
On Monday, soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara dragged Laurent Gbagbo from Côte d'Ivoire's presidential palace, which by then had been bombed into ruins by French and UN attack helicopters. Last November, Ouattara was elected president of Côte d'Ivoire, but he had been confined to an Abidjan hotel by the country's army, which until recently remained loyal to Gbagbo.
After the November election, Gbagbo's strategy to hold onto power was a play for time, while he waited for fissures to grow among his many critics on the African continent and beyond. Instead, the international community showed rare unanimity and held a united front against Gbagbo, nicknamed Le Boulanger for his ability to roll his adversaries in flour. The West African central bank blocked his government's access to Ivorian state accounts; other countries ceased recognizing ambassadors appointed by Gbagbo; and in the end, even Gbagbo's own soldiers and civil servants saw that he would soon be unable to pay them, leading most to defect to the pro-Ouattara side. Once Ouattara's fighters made a southward push from their northern bases in late March, they met little resistance until they reached the last Abidjan neighborhoods held by the most loyal of Gbagbo's remaining troops.
In 2004, an Ivorian academic told me of a local saying: "When two men are having a fistfight, you must first wait until it is clear which one is going to win, and then you must step in before someone gets really hurt." At the time, he was remarking on the exceptionally quick intervention by West African and French troops that prematurely froze the 2002 civil war. That conflict was fought between Gbagbo and the Forces Nouvelles, a rebel group that had tried to overthrow him before settling for control of the country's north. In the end, both sides believed that if the war had been allowed to follow its natural course, they would have won; paradoxically, both camps blamed France for preventing their own victory.