Endgame in Ivory Coast: Gbagbo's Last Stand

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Kambou Sia / AFP / Getty Images

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, left, and General Philippe Mangou celebrate the 48th anniversary of the country's independence in Abidjan on Aug. 7, 2008

The stage is set for a final showdown in Ivory Coast after the army chief of staff abandoned strongman Laurent Gbagbo. General Philippe Mangou sought refuge with his family in the South African ambassador's home on the night of March 30. Mangou had ostensibly led the national army (known as the FDS) that has propped up Gbagbo for four months since he lost a November runoff election. Two other ranking officers defected as well. The defections come as forces loyal to Gbagbo's challenger, Alassane Ouattara — the internationally recognized winner of the elections — closed in on the main city of Abidjan.

Gbagbo was apparently stunned by the Mangou defection. Speaking to TIME on condition of anonymity, a lieutenant in the FDS said Gbagbo had called him on Thursday morning, "demanding to know if the rumors were true. The first he'd heard of it was on a news channel." The lieutenant added, "From a military standpoint, this is game over. Nobody can go into battle without a commander — who or what are we fighting for?" The lieutenant believes Gbagbo's defeat is imminent.

An increasingly nervous-looking Mangou had been regularly wheeled out on state television to deliver press statements in a robotic monotone. "Mangou has been a puppet for a long time. He's remained chief of staff because it's a case of keeping your enemies closer. He and his family have been effectively held hostage [since November]," the lieutenant claimed. The South African Foreign Ministry said Mangou, his wife and his five children were provided refuge at the ambassador's house on "humanitarian grounds."

The dramatic flight of Mangou crowns a sweeping reversal in the momentum for Ouattara supporters. Cooped up in an Abidjan hotel encircled by U.N. peacekeepers, the winner of the U.N.-certified polls has — until now — been literally powerless as the incumbent refused to relinquish the reins of power. Backed by the army and with state TV in his grip, Gbagbo has maintained his legitimacy through a propaganda war — which propelled thousands of youths to answer a March 17 appeal to enlist en masse.

That illusion appeared to be fading as a state of lawlessness gripped large parts of the country. Ouattara now has an internationally recognized army after issuing a decree recognizing former New Forces rebels, who have controlled the northern half of the country since a 2002 civil war. The newly formed army is known as the Republican Forces. A spokesperson for Gbagbo's government called for a cease-fire on Tuesday, as the pace of the pro-Ouattara forces' advance became clear. But Gbagbo has since ignored a final warning from Ouattara to step down peacefully.

Abidjan, the country's seat of power, is in near chaos. Gun battles erupted around the presidential palace where Gbagbo is believed to be hunkered down. At makeshift checkpoints, gun-toting youth backers of Gbagbo, many carrying arms distributed earlier this week, stopped the few residents who dared to venture out into the streets. Gbagbo has begun to rely increasingly on youth militias, as his army has been worn thin after weeks of fighting the anti-Gbagbo insurgency, known as the "invisible commandos." Hundreds of youths, some carrying mattresses, streamed around the palace and television station. But not everyone is convinced they will be a match against a joint assault by the Republican Forces and the invisible commandos.

"We've all seen reinforcements arriving over the last few days," said a resident in the Abobo neighborhood, the unofficial headquarters of the insurgents. "I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me at first. They are seriously armed, driving around in brand-new, unmarked 4-by-4s." Another resident said she had seen a column of U.N. tanks and French Licorne forces tanks patrolling the city on Thursday.

Any remaining Gbagbo loyalists face challenges on multiple fronts. The political capital, Yamassoukro, fell on March 30 to the Republican Forces, as they breached a former U.N.-patrolled buffer zone that divided the country and opened a 143-mile (230 km) southward stretch of motorway linking them directly to Abidjan. On Thursday, the Republican Forces were positioned some 93 miles (150 km) away from Abidjan on the eastern corridor, Seydou Ouattara, their spokesperson confirmed, and they have also overrun the cocoa port town of San Pedro, 118 miles (190 km) to the west of Abidjan. Residents in the area said the advancing Ouattara troops met with little resistance. "There wasn't even a single policeman left. Liberian mercenaries were manning the police guard points earlier, but they all took off by 10 p.m.," Soro Kinda, of San Pedro, said. "There was no one left by the time the Republican Forces arrived half an hour later. The only people outside were a few people cheering them."

Still, in Abidjan, ordinary folk weren't taking chances. Large swaths of the city were eerily quiet as shops and businesses shuttered their doors, waiting for the final spectacle.