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Sen. James Inhofe, March 15, 2011. (AP)

Ivory Coast's Strongman Gbagbo Has U.S. Senator, Other Allies In Washington

Apr 1, 2011

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Frank James

If Laurent Gbagbo, the besieged Ivory Coast strongman who appears near to losing power, ever needed an ally in Washington, it's now.

And he has one apparently, Sen. James Inhofe, the conservative Republican from Oklahoma. Actually, the senator isn't the only Gbagbo ally in Washington.

Not that it's going to do the African big man much good. The latest reports are that opposition fighters are in the capital of Abidjan and that they're attacking Gbagbo's residence though it was unclear according to news reports where Gbagbo is exactly.

Still, the friendship between Inhofe and Gbagbo is interesting, especially since the senator has been pushing the State Department to reverse its position and call for new elections in the West African nation.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which Salon got a copy of, Inhofe pushed the Gbagbo line that election irregularities explained why Gbagbo lost to Alassane Ouattara, a problem requiring new elections.

The UN, the U.S., the African Union, ECOWAS, pretty much any institution that matters, rejects Gbagbo's charges.

So it's noteworthy that in the face of all this, Inhofe has sided with Gbagbo.

In the Salon report, Justin Elliott explained:

While the crisis has gotten substantial press attention, one aspect of Gbagbo's past — and present — has flown under the radar: his longtime ties to the Christian right in the United States, a movement in which he still finds at least some support.

That includes a U.S. senator and acquaintance of Gbagbo who declined to intervene in the crisis when asked by the State Department earlier this year, a former congressman who was hired by Gbagbo as a lobbyist, and a Christian right TV network that ran a fawning profile of Gbagbo, even as violence engulfed Ivory Coast. The senator, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, today released a letter to Hillary Clinton calling for new elections in Ivory Coast, putting him in direct opposition to the view of the Obama administration, the United Nations and the African Union that Gbagbo lost a fair election.

Gbagbo, along with his influential wife, Simone, are evangelical Christians who are known for lacing their speeches with religious rhetoric. "God is leading our fight. God has already given us the victory," Simone Gbagbo, who is both first lady and politician in her own right,said at a rally in January. Both Gbagbos have attended the National Prayer Breakfast, a big annual Washington event run by the secretive Christian group known as the Family, or the Fellowship.

This from a piece in Foreign Policy, that Elizabeth Dickinson wrote after talking with Inhofe:

When I spoke to Sen. Inhofe by phone today, he told me that he had known Gbagbo for years. "We have a lot of friends in common." I asked him if he had been able to communicate with Gbagbo since the November election, to which he replied: "I have been able to, but I have not."

Inhofe first wrote to the State Department to contest the Ivorian elections on February 9, when he says that he provided documented evidence that the vote had been flawed...

Gbagbo is linked to terrible violence in Ivory Coast. In March, soldiers loyal to him fired on unarmed women, young and old, killing at least seven and wounding more than 100.

Meanwhile, there are reports that pro-Gbagbo death squads and militias have targeted people in Abidjan and beyond.

Gbagbo isn't the kind of leader who can find a U.S. lawmaker willing to publicly plead his case before the State Department. But, as I said, it appears unlikely it will make much of a difference in the end.

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