March 1, 2011
By ADAM NOSSITER
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — At the Marcory market, iron shutters are pulled down tight over storefronts for block after block. In the Koumassi neighborhood, idle men drift up to a rare open vendor, cadging a lone cigarette. Fish and grain stalls on the road into another area, Abobo, are deserted, save the rats scurrying in a facing gutter. Lines of women, fleeing the violence in a single-file exodus, balance possessions on their heads and then scatter at the sound of nearby gunfire.
Abidjan, once West Africa’s most important city, is collapsing under the weight of Laurent Gbagbo’s armed fight to stay in power, three months after losing a presidential election.
Businesses are shutting, employees are being laid off by the dozen and families complain of going without meals. Traffic is minimal, and roadblocks operated by rock-wielding, pro-Gbagbo youth groups are everywhere. Amid the torrent of international sanctions against him, banks have closed, all A.T.M.’s have shut down and cash is rarer by the day.
But still Mr. Gbagbo refuses to yield. If anything, the world’s shift of focus to the uprisings in the Arab world appears to have emboldened him. Bloody incursions continue into neighborhoods that support the opposition. Xenophobic language airs nightly on the state television channel and from the mouths of government officials — “France, the United States and the United Nations are provoking civil war in Ivory Coast,” a Gbagbo spokesman, Alain Toussaint, said in a recent interview. And on Monday, Mr. Gbagbo’s forces fired on United Nations inspectors seeking to determine whether his government had imported attack helicopters from Belarus in violation of an arms embargo.
This week also, nine newspapers opposed to Mr. Gbagbo closed, saying they could no longer withstand police harassment and constant threats of violence against their journalists. “They’ve been summoned repeatedly by the Crime Squad” of the Gbagbo government, said a spokesman for the papers, Dembele Al Seni.
Meanwhile, the man who nations across the world say defeated Mr. Gbagbo in last year’s election, Alassane Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund official, remains trapped in a lagoon-side hotel, protected by United Nations troops.
But increasing signs of armed assaults against Mr. Gbagbo’s forces have appeared in recent days. Some of his soldiers— estimates range from 3 to 27 — were killed in Abobo last week by a shadowy militia that fades into the neighborhood after attacking, leaving pro-Gbagbo troops, rifles bristling from the sides of trucks, cautiously patrolling Abobo’s edges. And late last week, gunmen affiliated with the armed rebellion against the government in 2002 captured several small towns in the country’s west from Mr. Gbagbo’s forces.
“It’s war in the trenches, not open warfare,” said a diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, predicting further bloodshed and no quick resolution.
He said armed “pressure” on Mr. Gbagbo had begun, aided by defections from his troops. With diminishing revenue coming into the government — European Union sanctions have blocked trade with certain entities tied to the government, including the ports — and the nation’s accounts at the regional central bank shut off by West African leaders, only about half of February’s army and civil-service salaries were paid, the diplomat said.
The new resistance has increased perils here. “The danger of reprisals on civilians is very real,” the diplomat said. “I’m afraid the price of his fall could be very heavy, like Qaddafi.”
In Abidjan, blocklong fields of uncollected garbage are not uncommon, and signs of exasperation with this stifling status quo are everywhere.
On Tuesday morning, dozens of women marched in a tight pack through the mostly pro-Ouattara Koumassi neighborhood waving leafy branches and chanting “We want peace!” — one of a number of spontaneous anti-Gbagbo demonstrations here in recent days.
Gunfire sounded the previous night in Koumassi, and there were several deaths. Mr. Gbagbo’s forces often raid in darkness, the residents explained. Then on Tuesday again, the pop-popping of semiautomatic rifles by Mr. Gbagbo’s troops could be heard after several minutes, a warning to the marchers. Yet they kept on.
“We’re marching because we are tired,” Kankou Samaké shouted above the din. “We can’t sleep. We are not able to eat. And our husbands are not working since Gbagbo demonized the whites,” she said, explaining that European-owned firms here had shut down or suspended operations.
“We are hungry. There is no work for our men,” said another marcher, Aminata Traoré.
A line of neighborhood men watched the women, approving but not joining in. “They are fed up,” said Maiga Mikailou, a hardware-stall owner, explaining that his store had been closed for a week. “Nobody is eating.”
Elsewhere in Abidjan, fear prevailed over anger.
“It’s too frightening,” said an Abobo resident, Jean Kimon, walking slowly down the road out of the neighborhood, carrying his possessions in a small plastic bag. “Everyone’s leaving.”
A thin trickle of women followed Mr. Kimon. “Too dangerous to stay,” a woman said, walking as fast as the large plastic bag on her head would allow her to. “The attackers are threatening us,” she said. “There are bodies on our street.”
Shattered storefronts lined the road, looted over the weekend by pro-Gbagbo youth in a neighborhood supporting his rival, residents said. The political violence has added to the economic misery, which has become more acute as the crisis wears on.
“Everything’s broken,” said an unemployed electrician, Kouamé Konan, looking across the road. “Where are you going to work? Nobody can pay you anyway.”
The normally bustling Sococé shopping center in Deux Plateaux, another neighborhood, was unusually quiet Tuesday afternoon. The president of Ivory Coast’s National Union of Shopkeepers, Abdoulaye Diakité, slowly sipped a coffee and explained: “It’s total desolation. Our members are in a panic. They don’t know what to do. They have no access to their assets. And their stores have been looted.”