The eyes of Africa were on Ivory Coast. Would a democratically defeated ruler once again succeed in clinging to power? Using tricks and troops, despite a clear election outcome against him -- and against the express wishes of the international community?
Laurent Gbagbo failed. He was arrested on Monday afternoon after French forces in the former colony closed in on the bunker where he had been holed up for the past week. Gbagbo had been in power for more than 10 years, and had refused to step down after his rival Alassane Ouattara won a November presidential election according to UN-certified results.
On Monday evening, Gbagbo, who has been placed under the protection of UN troops, appeared on television and called on the warring factions to lay down their arms. It was the final admission of defeat.
Ouattara, Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president, now has a free hand, at least for the time being. The sanctions imposed by West African regional bloc ECOWAS, the EU and the US are likely to be lifted quickly, the banks will reopen and cocoa exports, the country's most important source of revenue, will resume. That, at least, is the hope.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed Gbagbo's arrest. "It gives us hope that the civil war will now end quickly," he said. Ivory Coast now had a real chance for a peaceful and democratic fresh start, he said.
But it will take time for life in Ivory Coast to return to normal. Thousands of firms, factories and stores, especially in the commercial capital Abidjan, have been plundered, and the hundreds of business people who fled the country in recent months and won't be returning in a hurry. Many in the business community supported Gbagbo and are deeply skeptical about Ouattara.
The new president faces a difficult task in uniting the country. To end the conflict he will have to seek reconciliation with the people who supported Gbagbo.
"I call on my fellow countrymen to abstain from all forms of reprisal and violence," Ouattara said in a televised address late on Monday, calling for "a new era of hope." "Our country has turned a painful page in its history," he said, urging youth militias to lay down their arms and promising to restore security to the nation.
Ethnic violence has festered during Ouattara's lengthy tug-of-war with Gbagbo, particularly in the west of the country. Hundreds of people were killed as both sides in the conflict committed atrocities against civilians, aid groups say.
Ouattara said Gbagbo, his wife and aides who have been detained will face justice. But he also promised a South African-styled Truth and Reconciliation Commission to shed light on all crimes and human rights abuses.
Quattara's own credibility has been dented by reports that his troops committed massacres in recent weeks. The International Criminal Court in The Hague may now investigate him and his commanders as forcefully as it probes Gbagbo.
'The Nightmare is Over'
Gbagbo's defeat had become inevitable. Before his arrest, French tanks had advanced into the compound of the presidential residence where he had been staying in a bunker for a week.
One of Ouattara's fighters, Issard Soumahro, told AP that the storming of the bunker residence started after the French and UN launched air strikes on Sunday. "We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker. He was there with his wife and his son. He wasn't hurt, but he was tired and his cheek was swollen from where a soldier had hit him," Soumahro said.
Television footage showed Gbagbo being led out of the building in a white tank-top and putting on a colorful shirt. He was interrogated and take to the Golf Hotel. "The nightmare is over for the people of Ivory Coast, there is much celebration. He is now being held in a safe place for the next steps to put him on trial," said Ouattara's UN ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba.
But analysts say putting Gbagbo on trial, especially in a court in Ivory Coast, could trigger new unrest.
British Foreign Minister William Hague demanded a fair trial and said the former president had "acted against any democratic principles" in recent months. He added that Britain had "long regarded" Ouattara as the rightful president and hoped the change of leadership would allow the opportunity for a "democratic and peaceful" way forward. However, Hague also called for Gbagbo to be treated with respect and said he hoped a "fair and properly organised judicial process" would take place.
It remains unclear what role the West, and France in particular, played in the arrest. The French military denied having been involved in seizing Gbagbo, but it seems unlikely that Ouattara's militia possessed the training or the equipment to pull off such a coup. Furthermore, the fact that Gbagbo was taken alive suggests outside involvement, as does the presence of armored UN vehicles that secured the street leading to the besieged residence when Ouattara's troops entered the building.
A Warning to All Despots
The West insisted throughout that Gbagbo must step down. He had tried to stay in power with the help of the armed forces. International sanctions against him and his aides failed to resolve the conflict. At the end of March, forces loyal to Ouattara launched an offensive and conquered large parts of the country within days. But they encountered stiff resistance in Abidjan. Finally on April 4, UN and French forces intervened and destroyed most of Gbagbo's weapons arsenals.
The UN troops had been authorized by a resolution to use all means at their disposal to protect the population, because Gbagbo's troops had repeatedly targeted civilians. But Human Rights Watch said Ouattara's forces were also guilty of killing hundreds of civilians and committing other acts of violence.
On Monday cheering youths celebrated Gbagbo's arrest in the streets of Abidjan, where people have been trapped in their homes with little food or water as fighting raged for 10 days. Dwindling supplies as well as frequent power cuts and a shortage of medical supplies have fueled fears of a humanitarian disaster unless authorities can act swiftly.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gbagbo's arrest was a signal to all the world's autocratic rulers. She said dictators should take notice that "they may not disregard the voice of their own people in free and fair elections." She added that "there will be consequences for those who cling to power."
The arrest may also serve as a warning to the political elites in Zimbabwe, Congo and Kenya, all of which are due to hold elections in the near future.