Skinny, wearing scruffy trousers and baring a chest glistening with sweat, 24-year-old Enselme Behilbro speaks for many of Ivory Coast’s “Young Patriots” when he says he is willing to die for Laurent Gbagbo.
“I am proud to liberate my country. I am ready to die,” he told Reuters at a palm-lined stadium flanked by French colonial buildings in the army headquarters, where thousands of youths crowded in after a weekend call by the incumbent’s youth leader, Charles Ble Goude, to enlist.
“I’ve had enough of this rebellion,” Behilbro said.
It may be doubted how many of Gbagbo’s fanatical youth supporters really are willing to be killed to defend his disputed claim to the presidency, after a UN-certified election his rival is internationally recognised to have won, Reuters reports.
But there is no doubt he is positioning them as a weapon of last resort in a violent power struggle with rival Alassane Ouattara that risks tipping Ivory Coast back into all out war.
Analysts worry it is a weapon even Gbagbo can’t control.
As they streamed into the stadium, soldiers tried in vain to stop more getting in, but were overwhelmed, as the crowd pushed down a gate. Efforts to cordon them off with iron bars were half successful. At one point, a frustrated soldier whipped some with a rope like an overseer to push them behind a line.
“Do you want a Kalashnikov?” shouted a voice amplified by loudspeakers. “Yes! Yes!” shouted the crowd.
And then a soldier brandished his Kalashnikov, or AK-47, assault rifle while dancing to Ivorian Zouglou pop music, eliciting rapturous applause.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for ages,” said Wilfrid Zoin, 22. “This is the time to defend our country. The West is trying to destroy us,” he added, echoing claims by Gbagbo’s media that he is victim of a French-led Western conspiracy.
Gbagbo’s use of volatile youths and students has caused mayhem in the past. In 2004, when he fell out with the French peacekeeping mission, thousands of them rampaged through the streets attacking French property, forcing 8,000 to evacuate.
His youths, some armed with AK-47s, sticks or machetes, have set up roadblocks all over Abidjan, attacked UN staff and killed some West African immigrants, says Human Rights Watch.
Goude denies inciting violence and says Ouattara’s “rebellion” against Gbagbo had forced him to enlist the youth.
“I’m proud of the way the youth stood up,” he told Reuters.