ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – African leaders returned to Ivory Coast on Monday in their second visit in a week as they stepped up pressure on the country's renegade president to cede power more than a month after the election or face a military ouster.
Laurent Gbagbo has defied the calls to step down even though results tallied by the country's electoral commission and certified by the United Nations showed he lost by a nearly 9-point margin to longtime opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
Gbagbo has clung to power with the backing of the army, and human rights groups accuse his security forces of abducting and killing hundreds of political opponents. The U.N. says it also has been barred entry from two suspected mass graves.
Gbagbo has dismissed the international condemnation as "a foreign plot" led by France, the country's former colonizer. In a break with the past though, the African leaders also have taken a stance against one of their own.
The three presidents who are coming to Abidjan on Monday represent the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, a 15-member regional bloc that is threatening military action if Gbagbo does not agree to step aside.
The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde are also being joined by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is representing the African Union. The continental body in the past has been derisively called "the club of dictators" because of its unwillingness to criticize rogue leaders. However, the AU has been uncharateristically strident in its criticism of Gbagbo, threatening sanctions if he does not leave.
Col. Mohammed Yerima, director of defense information for the Nigerian military, said that defense chiefs from the 15-nation bloc met Friday to begin strategizing what sort of assault they'd use if talks fail. He said any initial invasion force would rely on the West African coalition's standby force, as well as equipment and material already stockpiled.
If international pressure succeeds in forcing Gbagbo to stand down, Ivory Coast could act as a test case for democracy in Africa and a warning to other strongmen on the continent who refuse to let go.
Gbagbo, who came to power in 2000 and ruled during a brief civil war, overstayed his mandate when it expired in 2005, claiming the country was too unstable to organize a poll. When the election was finally held in October, it had been scheduled and then canceled at least six times.
In the lead-up to the November runoff, his party's slogan was: "Either we win. Or we win." Some have taken that to mean he never intended to step down, regardless of the results.
For several days after the vote, Gbagbo loyalists tried to prevent the election commission from releasing the outcome, and once the results were out, the constitutional council led by a Gbagbo adviser immediately overturned them by canceling half a million ballots from opposition strongholds.
Gbagbo's government then imposed a media blackout, yanking foreign channels off the air. He called on the United Nations peacekeeping mission to leave the country, accusing them of backing his opponent, who is holed up in a luxury hotel in the commercial capital of Abidjan.
The election was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war.