US officials thought a BU post might ease Gbagbo out

Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast was voted out in December. Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast was voted out in December.
By Farah Stockman and Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Four months ago, Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo had a choice: step aside peacefully after losing an election or drag his country into war. To help persuade him to leave, US diplomats explored the possibility of Gbagbo, a former history professor, being offered a position at US colleges, including Boston University, according to congressional aides and State Department officials familiar with the effort.

Hilary Renner, a press officer for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said that State Department officials reached out to a number of Gbagbo’s aides, friends, and associates in the weeks after the Nov. 28 election to tell them that he had a variety of options available if he left peacefully, “including potential positions in academia.’’

But Gbagbo refused to give up power, plunging his country into a civil war that has left hundreds dead. On Monday, military forces captured him at the presidential residence. Now the new president, Alassane Ouattara, who is widely believed to have won the election, has pledged to put Gbagbo on trial before a truth and reconciliation commission.

Renner said efforts to get Gbagbo to leave and accept a university position ended in December after he refused to give up power and declined to take a call from President Obama.

“It became quickly apparent that Gbagbo no longer met the profile of a gracefully departed defeated candidate who might be welcomed into such a position,’’ she said.

Yesterday, CNN reported that a teaching job had been part of an offer to have Gbagbo leave office peacefully. The Associated Press reported last week that Gbagbo turned down a proposal by President Obama to take a history professorship at an unspecified Boston university.

Renner did not mention BU by name, but she spoke in response to a question about whether the State Department was trying to organize a fellowship for Gbagbo at the university.

Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at BU, which gives 12-month fellowships to former African leaders as part of a democratic process, declined to say whether State Department officials asked him to offer Gbagbo a fellowship.

Stith, a former US ambassador to Tanzania, was aware that the State Department was seeking ways to peacefully end the stalemate.

“Had Gbagbo decided to step aside, in order to preclude the tragedy the country has had to endure for the last several months, looking to have him settle somewhere is something I would have given a priority to,’’ Stith said.

But he said BU’s program has a rigorous selection process and that Gbagbo’s name had not been considered yet.

Senator James Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma who is friendly with Gbagbo, has said that Donald Yamamoto, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, approached him shortly after the election to ask him to encourage Gbagbo to take a position at BU.

Inhofe told the Oklahoman newspaper that he refused to intervene in that way because it was possible that Gbagbo was a victim of election fraud. Yesterday, he asserted that Gbagbo and his family were being tortured by forces loyal to Ouattara. He demanded that the State Department find a place where Gbagbo’s family could go into exile in Africa “with dignity.’’

But others said Gbagbo lost his chance to start a comfortable life outside Ivory Coast when he refused the offer State Department officials, along with European and African leaders, made.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya told CNN that he visited Gbagbo and communicated a US offer “that he would be allowed to be a lecturer at the University of Boston.’’ Gbagbo refused.

“The really unfortunate thing is that Gbagbo never saw the light,’’ Stith said. “Now, he is being run out of town on the rail when he could have been celebrated as somebody who was prepared to put the country’s interest above his own.’’

Tracy Jan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Milton Valencia can be reached at, Farah Stockman can be reached at