ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—At a campaign event in October, I watched the incumbent president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, dance as if he didn't have a care in the world. We were in the newly refurbished Congress hall of the Hotel Ivoire, filled to the brim with Gbagbo supporters. As the theme to his campaign started playing on the loudspeakers and the audience clapped, the president sauntered down the aisle. Eyes wide open, he shook his hips and cut the air at chest height with his hands in time to the music. The audience sang along to the refrain: "Devant, c'est mais" -- "Ahead of us, it's maize," or in other words: "The opposition isn't much to worry about."
Recently, however, Laurent Gbagbo has had plenty to worry about. Despite his upbeat campaign, Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 presidential election -- the first genuinely open ballot held in the country's independent history -- by Ivory Coast's U.N.-backed independent electoral commission. Instead of packing up his office, however, he resolved to stay. His allies in the country's Constitutional Council nullified millions of votes from the north, where his rival is the favorite, declaring Gbagbo the winner. He took the oath of office, named a cabinet, and began issuing official statements as if nothing had happened.
Unfortunately for Gbagbo, he's not the only one claiming the presidency -- Alassane Ouattara, the opposition candidate who actually won the election, has done the same, setting up an office in a hotel in Abidjan and also swearing in a new government. Both sides are armed -- Ouattara is supported by the leftover rebels from Ivory Coast's recent civil war and a U.N. peacekeeping force of 9,000, while Gbagbo is backed by the army. The United Nations says 50 people have already been killed in post-election violence, victims of armed gangs who have besieged opposition districts during the overnight curfew. And many fear things will get worse before they get better.
With most of the world backing his rival, Gbagbo is under increasing pressure to resign. Unfortunately, it's exactly this kind of pressure that Gbagbo -- a self-styled man of the people -- is least likely to respond to. His caricature in the popular Ivorian weekly comic, Gbich!, features him with long sideburns and a towel draped around his neck to mop up sweat as if he were a boxer -- a style he often adopted during the long years he spent as an opposition politician pounding the streets under a hot tropical sun.
During those years, he was one of the only opposition leaders to challenge Ivory Coast's long-standing President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who died in 1993, leaving the country destabilized and open to a long period of disputed power and civil war, even after Gbagbo finally took office officially in 2000. Through the north-south conflict that followed from 2002 and 2007, it was to Gbagbo's credit that the state remained mostly intact. Civil servants never missed a pay check, the country remained the world's largest cocoa exporter, and sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest port, Abidjan, remained functional and even expanded. Luckily for Gbagbo, the key riches were in the southern tropical zone, which the government had a stronger hold over: cocoa, coffee, rubber, and some oil. But even those in the north -- the rebel zone -- enjoyed virtually uninterrupted electricity and water supplies.