- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

President Laurent Gbagbo "has to stick by the accords signed by the government and opposition leaders if Ivory Coast is to put an end to the greatest upheaval in its 43-year post-colonial history," said Alassane Ouattara, the West African nation's foremost opposition figure, in an interview.

Since September, Ivory Coast has plunged roller-coaster style from one of Africa's most stable and prosperous nations to one of its most unstable in the wake of a soldiers' mutiny that the government has failed to crush.

Accords signed in January in Marcoussis, France, not far from Paris, call for a cease-fire and a unity government under a new prime minister, Seydou Diarra. Mr. Diarra would wield powers similar to those under the French system, which permits "cohabitation" between a president and prime minister of different political parties.

Mr. Gbagbo will be permitted to serve out his term, which ends in 2005, after which elections including all political factions are to be held.

But the accords were broken as recently as this past weekend, when rebel positions in the western part of the country came under air attack by government forces.

The key Cabinet posts of security and interior minister have yet to be filled and the ground rules for free elections remain in the distant future.

Since the uprising, Mr. Ouattara, supported by the large Muslim majority in the northern part of the country, has become "the symbol and rallying point for disaffected elements in the country," according to Ali Koulibaly, the secretary-general of Mr. Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans, known by its French initials, RDR.

The claim, coming from a man in a political alliance with the RDR leader, is obviously partisan but has been matched by Mr. Gbagbo's harsh treatment of political opponents before and after the uprising.

Mr. Ouattara has been blocked from running for the presidency because of a constitutional requirement that a candidate's parents be Ivorian. Mr. Ouattara's father is said to be from Burkina Faso, although Mr. Ouattara denies this.

The RDR leader served as vice president under the late Ivorian independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

Since then Mr. Houphouet-Boigny's successors Henri Konan-Bedie, Gen. Robert Guei and now Mr. Gbagbo have all excluded Mr. Ouattara on constitutional grounds.

"The constitution is the constitution and must be respected," Mr. Gbagbo told The Washington Times in a recent interview.

Until the mutiny, Mr. Ouattara appeared to be the leading Western-oriented political figure competing for national office in Ivory Coast.

Events since the mutiny have transformed the RDR leader into a symbol of opposition to the politics of exclusion in Ivory Coast. Mr. Gbagbo's predecessor, Gen. Guei, was assassinated on the first day of the military uprising and Mr. Ouattara, fearing for his life, fled to the French Embassy in Abidjan, then to France.

"The Gbagbo government shows a strong reluctance to open up the political system to competition," Mr. Ouattara said in an interview last week.

"Mr. Gbagbo represents a small minority in the country and cannot hope to win in a competitive environment," said a Washington source close to the country's politics.



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