Another Chance for Peace in Côte d’Ivoire

Rebel soldiers train in Cote d'Ivoire
Rebel soldiers train in Côte d'Ivoire in February 2003. (Photo: AFP)

On March 9, the latest in a series of peace talks was held to attempt to unite the warring factions in Côte d’Ivoire, which has been in the grip of a bloody civil war since September 2002.

The talks followed the collapse of a previous peace agreement struck in France on Jan. 24. Upon signing there, the feuding factions sang the national anthem together, shed tears of joy, and toasted “the newly found peace” with champagne. President Gbagbo said that he was happy to have signed a peace deal with his “brothers.” The accord provided for the formation of a government of national reconciliation, headed by a prime minister of consensus. Seydou Diarra, a veteran politician known for his independent views and gentle demeanor, was immediately designated to hold that post.

But when rebel groups announced that they had obtained the posts of ministers of defense and interior, the army and Ivorians in government-held zones erupted with fury, attacking French schools, homes, offices, and military bases. The rebels countered by threatening to “march to Abidjan” and begin the “Rwandization” of Côte d’Ivoire. It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty that John Kufour, ECOWAS chairman and president of Ghana, invited the warring factions to his country for new talks.

After an intensive two-day negotiation, the factions agreed on the composition of a government of national reconciliation that will lead the country until elections are held in 2005. Under the Accra agreement, the rebels have conceded the two ministerial posts. Instead, they will be represented on a 15-member National Security Council that will also include the prime minister and representatives from the police and military police. The council’s tasks will include overseeing the management of the ministries of defense and interior.

The new peace deal was greeted with mixed feelings in the regional press. In a March 10 editorial for Ouagadougou’s independent Sidwaya Quotidien, Bessia Baboue expressed cautious optimism, saying, “Despite what appeared like irreconcilable differences, Ivorians have been able to form a government of national unity.” But Litié Boagnon of Abidjan’s independent L’Inter took an opposing view (March 10): “The war has transformed the psychology of an average Ivorian and has divided the social fabric into two camps of assailants and loyalists with each camp having its supporters. It will take a long time for Ivorians to learn to live together like before.”

Some commentators were even more outspoken. Louis Amédé, writing in Abidjan’s government-owned Fraternité-Matin (March 11), called the peace accord “another hypocrisy on the part of the Ivorian political classes, who have become masters in the art of selling illusions to the population.” And Félix Teha Dessrait of Abidjan’s left-wing Notre Voie warned (March 10) of a possible coup d’état by rebels in the government, saying, “Ivorians have to be vigilant with the arrival of the rebels in the new government of national reconciliation. The inclusion of rebels in a government of national unity has never made them abandon their sinister intentions. It has always given them the opportunity to buy time and strike later....Jonas Savimbi of Angola is an example.”

Even as the agreement was being signed in Accra, reports emerged of fighting between government forces and rebels in Bangolo, western Côte d’Ivoire, now known as the “Wild Wild West” due to its volatile nature and closeness to the Liberian border, which is controlled by Ivorian rebels and Liberian mercenaries. By all accounts, the Liberians are more lawless and uncontrollable than the rebels. In Accra, Roger Banchi, spokesman for one of the area’s rebel groups, told journalists: “Nobody can really say that he has total control of western Côte d'Ivoire…It's no longer a struggle between two sides. There are a lot of uncontrolled groups, as well as clashes between two communities. People are now taking the law into their hands.”

Meanwhile Jean-Yves Dibopeu, secretary-general of the Ivorian Student Union (FESCI) and member of Jeune Patriotes (Young Patriots), a radical group close to President Gbagbo, promised retribution for killings of Gbagbo loyalists, saying, “We will constitute a strong opposition to this government of national unity and will mobilize all genuine patriots against those who have killed and maimed their loved ones.”

Under these conditions, it hardly seemed surprising that in an informal poll conducted by the national television channel RTI, the majority of respondents said they wouldn’t celebrate until they saw how the accord was being implemented.