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Laurent Gbagbo: Despot or Anti Colonialist Hero?

June 17, 2014

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-Barbaric colonialism must not be replaced oppressive systems of dictatorship says Said Penda

indexRecently indicted by the ICC and still hailed by many as a hero in the struggle against neo –colonialism, a recent documentary produced by former BBC Journalist Said Mbombo Penda paints a rather dismal picture of the former Ivorian leader. On the surface Laurent Gbagbo used populist rhetoric to mask acts of double standards from fostering a policy of ostracizing some segments of the Ivorian polity, auctioning the Ivorian economy to very foreigners he spent time condemning and not yielding to the democratic tenets like free elections. As questions loom about the timing of the documentary or whether it had the hidden hand of the Ouattara government to diminish the clout that Gbabgo enjoys with many Africans, Said Penda says his effort is just a wakeup call to Africans to ask hard questions about leaders and dubious agendas. Using the example of the later Guinean leader Ahmed Sokou Toure who was venerated as a staunch Pan Africanist, while his opponents were arbitrarily jailed and in some cases killed, Said Penda says all he seeks to do in his documentary is the show a side of Laurent Gbagbo that was different from the one he sort to portray in the public. Interviewed by Ajong Mbapndah L, Said Penda tries to dispel some of the controversies that have surrounded his documentary.

Mr Penda, why did you decide to do a documentary specifically on Laurent Gbagbo and how challenging has it been for you to paint him as a villain when many Africans consider him a hero?

I decided to make this film for several reasons. One because as a Pan-Africanist, I was very disappointed by the reaction of some intellectuals and opinion leaders in Africa, on the issue of Laurent Gbagbo and other African dictators. One was willing to forgive any wrong doings from Laurent Gbagbo, massacres and other grave violations of human rights, since he was perceived as a resistant to real or supposed injunctions from a necessarily domineering West. Informed observers and all African intellectuals were aware of the abundant reports of Human Rights organizations and on the massive violations of human rights committed by the Laurent Gbagbo’s regime. It is this kind of complicity of some of the African intelligentsia that pushed me to show with facts, the true face of Laurent Gbagbo. This passive collusion with dictators has also been observed in the case of Sékou Touré in Guinea, hailed as heroes by the rest of the African continent, for his courage to demand the departure of the colonial power, while his opponents were tortured and killed by thousands, particularly in the notorious camp Boiro prison in Conakry, the capital of that African country. I’m definitely of the view that the real resistance, which deserves our respect, is one which does not replace the barbaric system of oppression and dehumanization which was the colonization by the equally violent and oppressing system which is the dictatorship.

On the other hand, I made this film because as a journalist and therefore in my role as a sentinel, it was important to reveal the big lie and the monstrous scam that was Laurent Gbagbo. This gentleman is more popular in several African countries including Cameroon, than in his own country, since in these states, he recruited both in the opposition and in the ranks of militants and sympathizers of power, while in Côte d'Ivoire it’s only part of its citizens who identify themselves to him. The Gbagbo’s imposture has prospered greatly in these states and even thanks to these people, and it is only fair that the action to take off the mask has come from an African; I would say rather an African citizen native of Cameroon, since Pan Africanist I am, and I dream every moment of the day when I could tear my Cameroonian identity card and show my passport of the united African state.

You were recently in Cameroon for the screening of the documentary after it was initially banned, how did the public react to the documentary and what is it you did differently to have the authorities lift the ban on the documentary?

Two things made the screening of my documentary possible this time. One subjective and the other more concrete. The subjective reason in my opinion is the strong international condemnation that followed the banning of my film. I understand that many organizations defending the freedom of speech have condemned the Cameroonian government. The more visible reason which made the banning of my film impossible this time is that I have obtained the 'operating VISA' a document issued by an independent commission, and which is required by the authorities in order to authorize the release of any movie in Cameroon. Even though I did not need this 'VISA' for screening in the press conference that was banned in January 2014, Cameroonian filmmakers advised me to request that famous 'VISA' in order to make sure the authorities could have no legal argument for the banning of my film this time. The Debate on my request were heated in the award Commission, on the one hand between the representatives of the state, some of which are from the intelligence services and those mandated by the filmmakers and civil society organizations.

Curiously, Cameroon has become a frequent destination of to Ivorian politicians, the Ivorian Minister of Communications was in Cameroon recently and former rebel leader and current speaker of the Ivory Coast Assembly  Guillame Soro is expected in Cameroon, is there any link between this charm offensive and the lifting of the ban on your documentary?

[caption id="attachment_9994" align="alignright" width="300"]Said Penda Said Penda[/caption]

Your question is interesting in that it allows me to put some things in context and give the Cameroon opinion the true measure of its importance or non-importance in the Ivorian politics. Often, some Cameroonians behave as if they are king makers in the Ivorian elections, like if they decide on who will win elections in Cote d’Ivoire. You will agree with me that it is obvious that it’s not Cameroonians who elect Ivorian leaders and I do not see how, rather than conducting their charm offensive towards the Ivorians, it would be in the direction of Cameroonians that the Ivorian authorities would do so. You mentioned Ivorian official visits in Cameroon in your question as if it was the only country in Africa, which enjoys such attention from Abidjan. I can tell you that this assertion does not only rest on nothing, and it is very far from reality. As journalist living in Côte d'Ivoire, I can tell you that the new Ivorian authorities are in a kind of offensive diplomacy, to really establish itself as a country whose opinion counts. Hence the numerous visits abroad of Alassane Ouattara and his ministers and other envoys. This is a huge change compared to Côte d'Ivoire under Laurent Gbagbo. You should know that under the old regime, with the exception of Angola, Zimbabwe, or South Africa, Côte d'Ivoire was a state completely isolated diplomatically. To the point where, at one time, the rare Gbagbo’s visits out of his country was for the mediation on the Ivorian crisis, ditto for the foreign delegations received in Côte d'Ivoire.

Regarding the question of whether my film fits into an overall strategy of the Ivorian authorities, I would respond by saying that I do not think my film actually serves Ouattara government, which seems to have yielded to opinions of the view that his willingness to reconcile Ivoirians, sits uncomfortably with a film that would remind the crimes against humanity committed by the Laurent Gbagbo’s regime. As a proof of what I’m saying, let me reveal that after having acquiring the broadcasting rights of my film, the Ivorian public television is still keeping it in a drawer for three months now... In addition, we should remind your readers that had the Cameroonian government not banned the screening of my film in January, it would have been shown to the Cameroonian public long before the visits of the Ivorian authorities you mentioned. Talking of a link between these events, therefore falls into pure speculation, which a serious media like yours should not pay the blank.

The last question was asked because there are people who think that your documentary was a propaganda tool by the Ouattara government to beef up its case against Gbagbo, did the current Ivorian government have anything to do with the film and do you understand the perspective of those who think the documentary serves their interest?

My documentary cannot be linked to the Ouattara government. It is a matter of common sense and all those who have seen my film acknowledge that. My film for example investigates the Douékoué massacre, a town in the western Côte d'Ivoire, where more than a hundred pro-Gbagbo civilians were killed by pro-Ouattara populations. Would you think Mr Ouattara would have contributed to a project in which we established that people who supported him massacred supporters of his opponent? It would mind self-flagellation and you agree with me that the affirmation to see Ouattara’s hand behind my film does not stand up to the facts that I just gave you. Interests that my documentary serves are those of many Human Rights organizations paying tribute to the quality of my investigation, which reinforces the hundreds of reports they have produced on inhuman treatment, rape and massacres committed under the reign of Laurent Gbagbo; interests that my documentary serves are those of all real intellectuals from Africa and the Diaspora, eager to learn and defenders of truth, that after seeing my film, thank me for the courage to tackle a myth as Gbagbo, knowing in advance that I might have to face the most violent criticism and even death threats; my comfort and satisfaction, come from thousands of Africans on the continent and elsewhere who recognize me in the street and come to thank me for helping to open their eyes on the reality of what happened in Côte d'Ivoire, and for helping them to understand the double language of a corrupt politicians, as Laurent Gbagbo. All these Africans who say that through my film, they discover that they were simply duped by Mr Gbagbo.


Can you give us a few specifics or concrete examples where Gbagbo failed in your opinion or preached virtue and practiced vice?

Examples of the imposture of Laurent Gbagbo are numerous. Take his anti-colonialist stand. He shouted from the rooftops at the same time he gave OTC and over-the-counter the port of Abidjan to the French company Bolloré, while other more attractive offers, such as China or Dubai, were presented. The World Bank was sharply reminded by Laurent Gbagbo to take care of his own business when she suggested that the concession of the port of Abidjan should be the subject of a proper tender process; during the reign of the alleged anti-colonialist, about 90% of all construction contracts and public works were awarded to Bouygues, a French company. One can also consider the fact that Gbagbo has never called for the closure of the French military base in his country. In my documentary, Laurent Gbagbo himself confessed in a speech, of the excellent relations between his regime and France. It was in 2004, two years after the outbreak of the rebellion and Laurent Gbagbo reveals that France gave him any military assistance requested. You understand from these facts that was just a great manipulator who adopted an anti-imperialist posture to simply legitimize his power and make himself popular in his country and elsewhere in Africa.

It may also be recalled, as shown by the facts in my documentary, all xenophobic messages and the instrumentalization of religion and ethnicity during the reign of Laurent Gbagbo. The Speech from the Gbagbo’s regime was one hears from the extreme right wing in France or in other Western countries; the foreign invader… And this "invader" under Gbagbo was unfortunately Africans, who were killed by thousands. A paradox, for a person who portrayed himself as a Pan-Africanist.

Part of the reason Gbagbo remains popular seems to be the belief that he was forced out more by imperialist forces than the will of Ivoirians, what do you make of this argument?

The debate on who won the elections only exists for observers who have very limited knowledge of the Ivorian geopolitics or sociological reality. You should know that Côte d'Ivoire and elsewhere in Africa, the vote is ethnic and / or regional; And ethnicity and region of origin of Mr Ouattara, northern Côte d'Ivoire, comprise the majority population of Cote d’Ivoire. This simple evidence is sufficient to confirm the victory of Alassane Ouattara, not counting the support brought to him by Henry Konan Bédié, with his ethnic group, the Baule, which occupy the center of the country. Mathematically, Laurent Gbagbo therefore could not win the presidential and himself knows it. The only way he would have hoped to win, he would have had to break the alliance between Mr Ouattara and Mr Bédié. He tried unsuccessfully to do it during the campaign for the run-off. People who therefore estimate that it was France who organized an electoral coup against Gbagbo are showing bad faith or have at least spread ignorance.

And in fairness to Gbagbo, looking at the political realities, you get to power, a rebellion breaks out, part of air force is decimated by a French attack, you are forced to share power with people who had no legitimacy at the time, etc, what were the chances he could succeed as a leader with so many internal and external forces against him?

10449733_10152522571218701_378931376_nI do not think that trying to find excuses for serious political mistakes and barbarism of Gbagbo’s regime helps Africa, most of whose leaders are corrupt politicians who rule through craftiness or harassing their oppressed peoples. We must restore the truth by saying that it is the warlike and violent behaviour from Gbagbo that explains the birth of the rebellion and not the contrary. The situation experienced in Côte d'Ivoire under Laurent Gbagbo could happen anywhere in Africa. Take the case of Cameroon. If someone comes to power one day in this country and in a strategy of weakening his opponent and his electorate, he began to transform into aliens and stateless all those suspected of possibly vote for his opponent, inevitably this will lead to a civil war. In Cameroon, surnames as Mba, Abessolo, Owona are also found in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon; as we find Bello, Maikano, Achu, Obi, in parts of Southwest / Northwest and northern Cameroon and in Nigeria. During Laurent Gbagbo reign, all Ivoirians with Nordic surnames (also found in the neighbouring countries of Cote d'Ivoire like Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea)- meaning Ouattara, Coulibaly, Sangare, Camara, Diarra, Konaté, Traoré, etc.-were declared foreigners in a Machiavellian strategy to reduce the electorate favourable to the opponent Alassane Ouattara. During police checks, identity documents of the people of northern Côte d'Ivoire were simply tear up. So you see, contrary to what the propaganda would have us believe, the real victim is Alassane Ouattara and those who were suspected to supporting him: the citizens of northern Côte d'Ivoire at first, then in the last phase of the crisis after the results of the presidential election was announced, the barbarism of the Gbagbo’s regime targeted all those who were in alliance with Mr Ouattara, in other words activists from Henry Konan Bédié’s party, and the late General Guei followers.

You were a BBC Reporter for Ivory Coast and certainly knows the country more than we do, but is it not selective justice for the ICC to haul Gbagbo and others like Ble Goude to The Hague for trial and no one from the rebellion is called upon to answer for atrocities too?

I consider myself a Human Rights activist and a strong supporter of the ICC, because for once, the fear has changed sides. It is no longer the poor civilians who are always afraid, but increasingly all warlords and leaders of our countries, who know they can at any time, have to answer for their actions, are also afraid. To answer your question specifically, I think we should avoid the trap of those who believe that in a crisis, everyone is guilty. This amounts to saying that, for example the same criticism should be applied to acts of aggression and crimes against humanity committed by Israel as to defence actions of the Palestinian people whose land is occupied by Israel in violation of dozens or even hundreds of UN resolutions. Facts about Cote d'Ivoire, is that there has been a policy of hatred and terror implemented by Laurent Gbagbo and his regime, which forced the people of the North of the country to take up arms to defend their citizenship. Now, if rebel forces committed war crimes, it is up to the ICC to investigate and prosecute. I note at this point that the ICC has yet published any judgment on the principal personalities from Ouattara’s camp. This could mean that the prosecutor's office is still investigating, as one could infer it was not enough evidence to prosecute. Let us be patient. You will notice that I have the decency not to speak on topics on which I have not conducted thorough investigations and so I cannot say whether rebel forces in Côte d'Ivoire have committed war crimes and / or crimes against humanity. However, from the little I know of this country where I have worked been several times as a BBC correspondent or special envoy, I can say that there was no balance of barbarity nor violence in Côte d'Ivoire. I show by facts in my documentary flowering of hate speech from the dignitaries of the Gbagbo regime, while there is no visual, sound or a single written document, which establishes any incitement to hatred coming from Alassane Ouattara or his top lieutenants.

Now that he is power, what has President Ouattara offered Ivoirians so far, what changes have taken place under his leadership and there worth the toll in human life and property it took to bring him to power?

Less than two years after his arrival into power, Alassane Ouattara broke diplomatic isolation of Côte d'Ivoire;  the policy of the foreign invader (usually other Africans) used as scapegoats to explain the difficulties of national has completely disappeared from official discourse, while under Gbagbo xenophobic rhetoric was the rule. Economically, even if I do not recognize myself in liberal policies practiced by Mr Ouattara, I note that Côte d'Ivoire today is expecting double-digit economic growth a rate and it has returned to solvency.

If you had to do a documentary on President Ouattara or compare his leadership and that of former President Gbagbo, what are some of the things or differences which will stand out between the two men?

Again, if I stick to the facts, I can say that Mr Ouattara is the antidote of Laurent Gbagbo. The first is in action while the second is in communication, cunning and verbiage. The first takes actions when Laurent Gbagbo talk much, generally populist speeches that were almost never materialized into concrete actions. People spent time insulting and dancing under Laurent Gbagbo and unfortunately very little work was done. It was a reign of illusion. Laurent Gbagbo was a real magician. Under Laurent Gbagbo for example, public television was a sort of fair in the tussle and invective, where opponents and anyone suspected of supporting the opposition were given all insulting qualification. Today, hate speech has totally disappeared from the RTI, although I find that the public broadcaster treats a little too much institutional issues, and she still fishing by poor organization of information, which makes it puts all the topics on the president and members of the government priority, even when these issues are not important information of the day. Let me be clear, I do not mean here that Alassane Ouattara is an angel, but it turns out he may be aware that the whole world is watching him and that he has no right to fail and the international community wont support the same nonsense as of his predecessor. Should Ouattara turn into a monster like Laurent Gbagbo, of which I was a fan when he was in the opposition, it is obvious that I would have no complex to direct a documentary about him. I must honestly confess the Mr Ouattara starts pretty well, but I remain vigilant, as a matter of principle, I distrust all politicians.

What lessons do you think Africans as a whole need to learn from the experience of Gbagbo, especially from the disconnect between leaders and their people?

What we must learn from the failure of Laurent Gbagbo as African people, is that we must remain very vigilant with politicians and never get distracted by their speech, no matter how convincing it could look like. We must judge our leaders, not through their words, but through concrete actions they take. Laurent Gbagbo had the best pan-Africanist and anti-neo-colonial discourse, but a coldly analyze of his action shows that there have been no act that would support his activism assumed in these areas. He was ​​a genius of manipulation.

The documentary was produced by your own production unit, can you tell us more about, some other works you have produced and Africans could expect from you in future?

My two previous documentaries were all on Human Rights topics, which confirms somewhere my commitment to the defence of human rights.

My future plan is a documentary entitled: 'Brazzaville, capital of a Free France’. I want to show the contribution of troops from former French colonies in the liberation of France during World War II. This is my response to some French politicians, arrogant and xenophobic against descendants of these Africans who died. Without those thousands of Africans, France would perhaps today be just a mere province of a Nazi Germany. It’s my call to this France which has no memory, to a little modesty and less condescending, when she talks about all the miseries of all forms, which require other people to seek refuge in France.

*Penda's documentary is available on Amazon


1 comment

  1. I feel sad reading this interview, more so when I saw that the journalist Said Penda portrays himself as a Pan-African and Human Rights activist. Those with indepth knowledge about what went on in Côte d’Ivoire understand from his responses that he was, and probably still is, out of touch with what really took place in the country. And it is clear that he is engaging in witch hunt, though the motive is not clear.
    His responses portray his prejudice against Gbagbo. A true pan-African will not be silent when a presidential candidate defies proposals from concerned Africans/pan-Africans including former presidents Rawlings of Ghana, Mbeki of South Africa and Obasanjo of Nigeria, for a peaceful solution through recounting of the votes. A true pan-African will not remain silent when a presidential candidate endorses use of force by western powers, in this case France the former colonizer, rather than conducting a recount and recheck of the suspected rigged election as proposed by true pan-Africans including Rawlings and Thabo Mbeki. Oh that can’t be! A human rights activist who does not condemn Ouattara, and France especially, for raining bombs on innocent civilians on their avowed mission to install Ouattara, a candidate if their choice. Holala! The earlier Africans gather courage to boldly speak truth to such sycophants and wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing people like Said Penda, the better. I am neither for nor against any of the then candidates – Gbagbo or Ouattara. The true will, progress and security of the people, the country and the continent – with or without outside support, but NOT outside countries’ disrespect for, interference in and abuse of the people’s legitimate rights through force – is paramount.
    Just think of the chaos and loss of lives. Can any person in a western country endorse or allow such a gargantuan mayhem on his/her territory?
    And will any western leader willingly hand over his opponent to, say, an African Court of Justice because they are enemies or opponents or they disagree? Kind of reminds me of the slave trade period when some chiefs would sell their powerful enemies to the slave buyers without feeling a hoot where they would be taking them to.
    I hope that Said Penda will rethink and that he will stop doing more harm to the African continent as true pan-Africans continue in their efforts to extricate the continent from former colonizers’ paws.
    Rawlings calls for peaceful approach to Cote d’Ivoire crisis
    Letter to African leaders, etc. on Ivory coast crisis

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