Ivory Coast's Ouattara Steps Up Pressure on Rival

Published December 14, 2010

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The man whom most of the world recognizes as Ivory Coast's president pressed ahead Tuesday with plans to force his opponent to relinquish power, including seizing the state treasury and taking control of government buildings.

Alassane Ouattara — whose victory has been acknowledged by the U.N., U.S., France and the African Union — has called for a giant street demonstration to accompany his government as it installs a new station chief at state television headquarters Thursday. He also intends to hold a second march the following day to take back the government buildings, where he plans to hold a cabinet meeting.

Both buildings are heavily guarded by Laurent Gbagbo's security forces and any attempt to move in on them is likely to spark violence.

The president of Ouattara's electoral coalition, Djedje Mady, announced the march Tuesday, calling on the "valiant people of Ivory Coast to take up the noble battle to restore the rule of law, guarantee fundamental liberties and assure peace and social cohesion."

In parallel with the street demonstration, a financial strategy to destabilize Gbagbo's increasingly isolated government is also being quietly pursued. Ouattara wants to cut off Gbagbo's access to state funds, making it impossible to pay civil servants and soldiers.

Such a move could set the stage for mass defections and turn the tide against Gbagbo, breaking the deadlock between the dueling presidents in this West African nation.

Ivory Coast has been operating with two presidents and two governments since a disputed Nov. 28 runoff. Ouattara was declared the winner by the country's electoral commission, but the next day, the constitutional council overturned those results after invalidating a half-million votes from Ouattara strongholds.

The dispute has raised fears of renewed unrest in the world's largest cocoa producer, which fell into poverty after a 2002-2003 civil war that divided the country in two. Ouattara draws much of his support from the country's north, while Gbagbo's power base is in the country's south.

"We're going to do everything to avoid a conflict," said Ouattara adviser Amadou Coulibaly. "If we can assume the state's finances, that's a big step."

Without access to those funds, Gbagbo's government won't be able to pay for the day-to-day expenses of running the state.

"All this generalized insecurity has paralyzed (Gbagbo's) government's control of finances so that the salaries of this month of December 2010 will all have to be borrowed," Guillaume Soro, Ouattara's designated prime minister, said Monday.

Jean-Louis Billon, president of the Ivorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, estimates that $180 million flows into the state coffers each month, though December revenues are even higher because it is both the peak of the cocoa harvest and the holiday season.

Ouattara wrote a letter last week to the west African central bank (BCEAO) asking them to refuse Gbagbo and his government access to state funds.

The regional central bank, which regroups the treasuries of eight countries that share the West African CFA franc, has yet to respond to Ouattara's request. Bank officials declined to comment on Ouattara's request.

While Ouattara's victory has been recognized by numerous foreign governments, Gbagbo maintains control of state media and the army, and continues to occupy the presidential palace and government buildings. He has kept the country under a nightly curfew since before the election, and extended it an additional week Monday night.

In a statement read on state television Monday night, Gbagbo's Civil Service Minister Jeannie Dagbo reassured state employees that the government was operational, and she urged them to return to work.

Ouattara's supporters, meanwhile, have called on all civil servants, including army officers, to rally behind the president recognized by the international community.

"I solemnly ask you to stop, as of today, collaborating with the illegal government put in place by former President Laurent Gbagbo," Soro said over the weekend. "Don't be afraid to follow your heart and your conscience."

Written by MARCO CHOWN OVED, Associated Press

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