- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

After nearly a decade of political storms following the death of independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, a sudden thaw appears to have enveloped Ivory Coast, a country with the potential to become a pacesetter for peace and prosperity in troubled West Africa.

The thaw is the first fruit of a recent national reconciliation forum organized by President Laurent Gbagbo and followed almost immediately by a face-to-face meeting of the nation's principal political rivals in Yamoussoukro, the capital.

Attending, in addition to Mr. Gbagbo, were former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, former President Henri Konan Bedie and ousted military strongman Robert Guei.

The dialogue has raised hopes for an end to Ivory Coast's time of troubles, which have been marked by manipulations to bar a major political figure from running for president, a military coup, ethnic rioting and a fraudulent election.

Taken together, these events have raised a huge question mark over political legitimacy in the former French colony of 16 million people, stitched together out of some 60 tribes, plus a sizable population of immigrants from elsewhere in West Africa.

Interviewed last week by The Washington Times, Mr. Gbagbo talked of respect for the rule of law as the key to lasting peace.

"We have opened a dialogue among the nation's most important leaders to seek a national reconciliation," the Ivorian president declared.

He was in Washington to attend a National Prayer Breakfast and to lobby U.S. officials to resume American aid blocked after the 1999 military coup. Ivorian businessmen are also eager to particpate in the benefits of the new Africa Trade and Opportunities Act, but are thwarted in that as well because of the undemocractic ways of its recent governments.

"We are encouraged by the progress shown by Ivory Coast, but we are waiting to see whether that progress continues and leads to full political participation of its main political forces," a U.S. official said.

"We have to be guided by respect for the rule of law, just as you are in your own country," Mr. Gbagbo said, returning to that theme repeatedly during the newspaper interview that lasted nearly an hour.

But the law, specifically Article 35 of the Ivorian Constitution, is at the very heart of the national dispute.

The Constitution was changed under the leadership of putschist Gen. Guei in 2000 to bar a candidate from running for president if either his father or his mother were deemed to be foreigners.

Gen. Guei's constitutional change, in fact, was a codification of a campaign started by the man he overthrew former President Bedie who during his six years in power time and again warned that Mr. Ouattara could not contest the presidency because, Mr. Bedie contended, Mr. Ouattara's father was born in nearby Burkina Faso.

It was also argued that Mr. Ouattara traveled on a Burkinabe passport when he received a scholarship to study abroad, thereby recognizing his own foreign origins.

At the leaders' meeting in Yamoussoukro, it was openly acknowledged that shutting out Mr. Ouattaa from the political process was the law's prime purpose.

Mr. Ouattara, who was prime minister at the time of Mr. Houphouet-Boigny's death and later served as deputy director of the International Monetary Fund, has disputed the claim that he is a foreigner and fought to no avail to have the law changed.

When he returned to Ivory Coast from Washington to participate in the October 2000 elections, he found his house surrounded by troops of the military government and his movements restricted.

Last month, however, he took part in the national dialogue.

After that, the curbs on Mr.Ouattara fell away. He was allowed to travel freely and was even permitted to pick his own people to provide for his security.

In an interview with the former prime minister, also last week, Mr. Ouattara conceded that his political prospects have brightened.

"But there still seems to be some confusion on my status in the mind of the president. He says he wants an open political process, but he stands by the article in the Constitution which precludes that from happening," Mr. Ouattara said. He again called for a change in the Constitution to clear the matter up.

All along, the former prime minister has insisted that his father was in fact an Ivorian who went to Burkina Faso to work without giving up his Ivorian citizenship.

Ivorians close to the situation note that the issue of national origins in the former French African colonies is sometimes a murky one.

France administered all of French West Africa as one political unit, and people in that part of the empire often went from place to place in search of jobs.

The Ivory Coast's constitutional article on succession is almost identical to a law in Zambia that was used by former President Frederick Chiluba to bar independence leader Kenneth Kaunda from running again on grounds that Mr. Kaunda was not from Zambia but from nearby Malawi.

The troubles of Ivory Coast began almost immediately after Mr. Houphpouet-Boigny died in December 1993. His chosen successor was Mr. Bedie, then leader of parliament.

Mr. Ouattara, as prime minister, aspired to the top job but did not challenge the succession. He thought, however, that he would have the chance to run in the next election. So he left the country and became the No. 2 man in the IMF.

In the October 2000 election, the general barred on one pretext or another every major leader from running except Mr. Gbagbo.

Mr. Ouattara's supporters, members of the Rally for Republicans (RDR) party, were furious, and riots broke out. Some 300 people died.

Sources familar with Ivorian politics say that a deal was struck under which the general would win the election, Mr. Gbagbo would become prime minister, and the torch would pass to Mr. Gbagbo at some later time.

But as in Nigeria in 1993 when a presidential election rigged by the military did not go according to plan and so was annulled the Ivorian general, running for president as a civilian, declared himself the winner, even though Mr. Gbagbo appeared to have garnered more votes.

Soldiers took to the streets, ousted Gen. Guei, and Mr. Gbagbo proclaimed himself president on the strength of his vote lead over the general.

For a country that had been stable and free of coups during the long reign of Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, the politics of the last decade has clearly created a national appetite for a return to normalcy.

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