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Gbagbo's Blame Game

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Today Laurent Gbagbo was captured, and at long last the Ivorian political crisis looks ready to subside. "The nightmare is over," declared Guillaume Soro, Côte d'Ivoire's incoming Prime Minister. But if the past is any prelude, we are likely to see a new war of words in the coming days and weeks.

For the past four and a half months, Gbagbo blamed everyone but himself for the disaster that had befallen his country. He asserted transparently bogus constitutional arguments to claim he had a right to the presidency. He blamed foreign interference for the crisis. He claimed that the United Nations and France, which ultimately interceded militarily on behalf of the rightful winner of last November's elections, engaged in neo-colonialism. Gbabgo's blame game was played out at press conferences, on facebook, on the Internet, and at public rallies.

Now that he has been detained, the blame game will surely continue. Spin is on the way. The image of French military action against Gbagbo will become a rallying cry for Gbagbo's loyalists. But when the chips are down, we must recall that Gbagbo bears primary responsibility for the crisis.

The election results were clear. Gbagbo lost on November 28th, and his refusal to relinquish power to Alassane Ouattara is what set the crisis in motion. Gbagbo was given a plethora of opportunities to cede power peacefully. He refused. He was offered exile. He refused. The African Union proposed a series of mediators and commissions. Each concluded Gbagbo had lost the election and had to stand down. Yet Gbagbo and his coterie of extremists rejected any diplomacy that did not support his fallacious constitutional claims to power. Repression was his main game and hundreds died at the hands of his security forces and militias.

With the diplomatic solutions exhausted, with a machine of repression unleashed against Ouattara's supporters, there were few options left besides military action. No one wants democracy by the barrel of the gun, but Ouattara and the Republican Forces loyal to him were not wrong to conclude that they had to use force to oust an obstinate Gbagbo. And the international community, which had invested so heavily in peace in Côte d'Ivoire, was not wrong to back up Ouattara militarily. They were correctly acting on behalf of Ouattara, the Ivoirian majority, and preventing a downward spiral of atrocities in the country. Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 1975 legitimated the UN's military actions.

What was Gbagbo thinking? Perhaps during the early stages of the crisis he was playing to have a national unity government that he would lead, à la Kenya or Zimbabwe. But Ouattara and key regional and international actors rightly rejected that premise. Perhaps Gbagbo was playing for a new election that he could rig better than the last one. Perhaps he was trying to pilfer as much as possible before conceding. Or perhaps he did not have a concrete strategy except survival by whatever means.

But in the final stages during the past several weeks after every major diplomatic initiative resulted in a clear statement in support of Ouattara? After his armed forces had been routed or defected en masse when all he controlled was his bunker and a few neighborhoods in Abidjan? At that point, he certainly knew he could never rule. What was he trying to accomplish? Two objectives seem plausible.

The first was to cast himself as an African liberation hero fighting the forces of neo-colonialism. Over the past four months he repeatedly blamed French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the main source of the country's political crisis. Gbagbo was, of course, simply diverting attention from the domestic sources of the crisis, specifically his refusal to leave office after he lost the election. In the post-conflict period, we expect that Gbagbo and his die-hard supporters will mold an image of the former president as an African liberation martyr who was deposed by France, not by the ballot box. However real the resentment towards France, we hope Gbagbo will not be remembered as some African hero vainly fighting the powerful French. The truth is he lost the election, refused to cede power, and effectively held his country hostage.

A second likely objective is that Gbagbo wanted to make the country ungovernable or to cause so much damage as to make it as difficult as possible for Ouattara to rule. If Gbagbo could not govern, then his successor should not succeed. That was the dangerous, vengeful, unpatriotic game Gbagbo appeared to be playing.

During the past month, Ouattara has made a number of positive statements. He has spoken of national reconciliation. He has condemned the abuse of civilians by his supporters. He has talked of putting the country back on its feet. He should continue in that vein and be sure especially to condemn any collective killings or punishment by his supporters. He should continue to reach out to former Gbagbo supporters and to build as big a political tent as possible.

The right thing for Gbagbo to do will be to acknowledge Ouattara's victory and wish him well. But that would a surprise. Surely he and his supporters will play every nationalist and every anti-colonial card they have. But when the dust settles, we hope that the real culprit will be clear. At stake is not simply a blame game, but the kind of political memory that will shape the country's recovery.

Thomas Bassett is Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Scott Straus is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.