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In Ivory Coast, a critical moment for national identity looms

A United Nations helicopter carrying journalists to a news conference held by Alassane Ouattara takes off from the UN headquarters in Abidjan Dec. 24, 2010.


Ivory Coast's disputed presidential election is more than a struggle between democracy and the reign of a strongman. It's about national identity.

On one side is incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian from the centre of the country who is considered a true citizen by his supporters. On the other is Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim from the north of the country whose supporters hail him as a champion of equality. Opponents, however, consider him an import from neighbouring Burkina Faso.

Nearly a month after Ivory Coast's presidential election, both men continue to contend they won. Mr. Gbagbo retains control on the ground, while Mr. Ouattara has overwhelming international recognition. Their respective supporters, despite days of street violence, kidnappings and executions, refuse to back down.

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This week could prove to be decisive in the standoff between the rival presidencies, with a planned general strike, a potentially violent rally, pressure from African leaders and the threat of a foreign military intervention in the offing.

Mr. Ouattara's party has called for a general strike to start on Monday, hoping to shut down economic activity and keep things from returning to normal under Mr. Gbagbo's continued rule.

On Mr. Gbagbo's side, his notorious ally Charles Blé Goudé called for a patriotic march on Wednesday in a show of power and provocation. At the height of the civil war in 2004, Mr. Blé Goudé's "Young Patriots" held anti-foreigner demonstrations and organized a door-to-door hunt for whites that led to the evacuation of nearly 10,000 French expatriates in a matter of weeks. This time around, he has called on his supporters to focus their efforts on those perceived to be from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali who support Mr. Ouattara.

Like the people of northern Ivory Coast, the Malians and those from Burkina Faso are largely Muslim, poorer and less well-educated than the Christians of Ivory Coast's south. This geographical division has left both sides feeling cheated. The southerners say the northerners are a drain on their economy. The northerners say the southerners don't treat them as equals. But trying to figure out who's from where often comes down to tattered photocopies of colonial-era identity papers that go back generations. It's a common African dilemma of ethnicities that defy national borders.

If Mr. Ouattara comes out on top, it will be a vindication for the northerners who took up arms against Mr. Gbagbo in a 2002 rebellion to reclaim their rights as full-fledged citizens. If Mr. Gbagbo retains power, it will burnish his image as a national champion and be seen by his followers as justification of his sometimes brutal tactics.

Ivory Coast's electoral commission declared Mr. Ouattara the winner of last month's election with 54 per cent of the vote and the result was certified by the United Nations. Citing to fraud and irregularities, the country's Constitutional Council threw out almost 600,000 votes, overturning Mr. Ouattara's victory and proclaiming Mr. Gbagbo the winner with 51 per cent.

In the ensuing power struggle, the UN reports that 14,000 refugees have fled the country after violence caused at least 173 deaths, many in circumstances involving masked men who come for Mr. Gbagbo's opponents at night. Mr. Ouattara has called for the International Criminal Court to investigate.

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Mr. Gbagbo's people refute these numbers, with Émile Guirieoulou, the Interior Minister, accusing the UN of telling only half the story.

"The government of Ivory Coast denounces the lack of objectivity and balance in the procedures carried out by the UN Human Rights Council," Mr. Guirieoulou said. He maintains that at least 36 of those killed in election-related violence were police or other security forces who "were targeted by gunfire" from Mr. Ouattara's followers. Mr. Guirieoulou also alleged that thousands of refugees arriving in Liberia are fleeing violence perpetrated by rebels who support Mr. Ouattara.

Mr. Ouattara's spokesman, Patrick Achi, said they have three main levers to resolve the conflict, "diplomacy, finances and the army."

On the diplomatic front, the UN asked Mr. Gbagbo's representative to leave and invited Mr. Ouattara's appointee to take his country's seat in the General Assembly. As for finances, Mr. Ouattara has persuaded the regional central bank to cut off Mr. Gbagbo's access to the state treasury.

"There is still the third lever," Mr. Achi said just before the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS, threatened military intervention if Mr. Gbagbo does not step down.

The presidents of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone are due to arrive in Abidjan on Tuesday to present the ECOWAS ultimatum to Mr. Gbagbo.

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"The three presidents can fly back with Mr. Gbagbo," said an ECOWAS statement, "as all ECOWAS countries are prepared to grant him asylum.

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