President Laurent Gbagbo has confounded everyone who entertained hopes, when he assumed office in 2000, that he was going to provide Cote d'Ivoire with the type of leadership it needs, after enduring three authoritarian regimes--that of Felix Houphouet-Boigny (1960-1993), Henri Konan Bedie (1993-1999) and Robert Guei (1999-2000). This is because Gbagbo's democratic credentials are impeccable. Houphouet-Boigny arrested him and took him to court in chains. He was then gaoled, and later driven into exile.
Gbagbo also has the singular distinction, among African leaders, of being enthroned as president by the direct action of the people. He had clearly won the presidential election of October 2000, when the incumbent president, Gen Robert Guei, tried to steal it. The people of Abidjan poured into the streets to protest, and Guei literally had to run away.
It was at this moment that Gbagbo failed to take the action that could have cemented his role as the Ivorian super-statesman. Throughout the Bedie and Guei years, the bone of contention in Ivorian politics had been the position of Alassane Ouattara, leader of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR).
Although Ouattara had acted as prime minister in 1990-93, while Houphouet-Boigny was still alive, Bedie (who succeeded Boigny) jettisoned Ouattara. He decreed that because Ouattara was not a "full-blooded" Ivorian (part of Ouattara's ancestry can be traced to Burkina-Faso), he could not stand against Bedie in the presidential election of 1994. The absurdity of declaring a man who had been prime minister for three years as a non-national, did not strike Bedie. But it conveyed the clear message to the Northern Muslims, who look upon Ouattara as their leader, and who constitute 40% of the Ivorian population of 17 million, that Bedie's government could not be trusted to treat them as equal Ivorians.
The police then began to harass them about identity papers; their ownership of property was also called into question sometimes. And they realised that their future in the country was precarious.
Yet apart from their numbers, the Northerners were a crucial part of the population, in that they provided labour, alongside migrants from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger, for the cocoa (of which Cote d'Ivoire is the world's leading producer) as well as the coffee, oil palm, banana and pineapple plantations.
Soon, the unease transmitted itself to Northern soldiers in the Ivorian army and on...