- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

Many in Africa have welcomed President Bush’s promise to make democracy the lodestar of U.S. foreign policy. For too long we have suffered under self-appointed strongmen. Africans of the 21st century expect to be ruled by laws rather than by the whims of men, under governments freely elected at regular intervals. And we have made epic sacrifices to earn that right. That’s why we salute Mr. Bush’s commitment to our cause, and ask him to back it with concrete actions.

Nowhere in Africa does Washington’s commitment to democracy face a greater test right now than in Cote d’Ivoire, whose ongoing political crisis pits democracy and the rule of law against the politics of violence. And this in a country widely recognized, until recently, as the cornerstone of stability in a region critical to U.S. long-term energy needs, but awash with weapons and increasingly targeted by terrorists.

The best hope for avoiding a catastrophe in West Africa today rests on the Declaration of End of War Agreement, signed in Pretoria, South Africa, recently between the government of President Laurent Gbagbo and the rebel forces that currently hold half the country at gunpoint. But the history of failed truces suggests that the successful implementation of the latest cease-fire agreement — a triumph of African diplomacy and the tireless efforts of South African President Thabo Mbeki — requires active support from the United States. And such engagement has thus far been sadly lacking.

The conflict pits Cote d’Ivoire’s democratically elected government against a self-appointed rebel force led by army mutineers. Previous internationally mandated peace accords designed to disarm the rebels and bring them into the political process have failed because the rebels have refused to honor their commitment to disarm. That may be a product of the fact that the peace process has inadvertently rewarded them for pursuing the path of violence.

Mr. Mbeki’s peace effort seeks to avoid the failures of the past by putting unconditional rebel disarmament and demobilization at the forefront of the process, due to commence within the week. The international community must observe this process with the closest of vigilance, and be ready to deploy neutral peacekeeping troops to oversee rebel disarmament should the cease-fire falter.

A second crucial aspect of the Pretoria agreement is its referral of a dispute over eligibility for the presidency to Mr. Mbeki to resolve, in consultation with the heads of the African Union and the United Nations. The issue had become deadlocked because rebel forces rejected the government’s plan to hold a referendum to approve the constitutional changes relaxing eligibility criteria, as demanded by previous peace agreements. Although the government backs the change demanded by the rebels, Cote d’Ivoire’s constitution, adopted by 86 percent of the electorate in a referendum, requires that any such amendment be approved in a new referendum.

The rebels insist that Mr. Gbagbo simply ignore the constitution and decree the change. This the president cannot do, nor can the democratic community in good conscience demand that he do so, because Cote d’Ivoire is a constitutional democracy, governed by laws. The constitution cannot be changed except by referendum; to tear it up would promote violence as a political tool. This is the reason both the African Union and the European Union have previously endorsed Mr. Gbagbo’s referendum plan. The voice of the United States needs to be heard on this question, which is a simple matter of democracy.

The best guarantee of success for Mr. Mbeki’s work is the active assistance of the international community, and particularly the United States. Any further breakdowns in the peace process will push a strategically vital country into the abyss of chaos. The international community must stand ready to send resources to supervise and support a democratic referendum and elections in Cote d’Ivoire, and to mandate — and, if necessary, expand — an extended international peacekeeping mission.

It is critically important that Americans understand that the conflict pits democracy and the rule of law against ethnic demagoguery, violence, intimidation and terror. The rebels have repeatedly defied the will of the international community by refusing to disarm. Rewarding or even tolerating such defiance sets a terrible precedent in the region and beyond. And allowing Cote d’Ivoire to devolve into civil war and chaos will without doubt create a fertile new front for terrorism. The choice before the United States could not be more simple, which is why we look forward to greater involvement by the Bush administration in defending democracy in Cote d’Ivoire.

Her Excellency Sarata Ottro Zirignon-Toure is the ambassador at-large and deputy chief of staff in the Office of the President of the Republic of Cote d’ Ivoire

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