- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Faced with the threat of U.N. sanctions and presented with a mediated way out of a civil war that is in its third year, the government of Ivory Coast and its rebel challengers appear to be moving quickly toward a settlement.

A negotiating breakthrough, achieved largely through mediation by South African President Thabo Mbeki, led to an accord signed in Pretoria, South Africa, on April 6. It calls for a permanent cease-fire, followed by elections with all parties to the underlying dispute participating.

In a telephone interview with The Washington Times this week, Philippe Djangone-bi, Ivory Coast’s ambassador to the United Nations, praised Mr. Mbeki as a “miracle worker” who “understood the essentials of the dispute and offered a fair solution that should be acceptable to all parties.”

A Washington observer of events in Ivory Coast, who declined to be named, also praised Mr. Mbeki, and said he was “surprised the South African leader came up with a solution that had eluded earlier negotiators.”

Late Tuesday, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo announced that he would allow his main rival, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, and other presidential hopefuls to run in October elections. That announcement removed a huge obstacle on the road to peace.

Until the announcement, Mr. Gbagbo had refused on constitutional grounds to let Mr. Ouattara run for president.

The Ivorian leader also had words of praise for Mr. Mbeki.

Shortly before the Tuesday announcement, the latter had written to Mr. Gbagbo, asking him to find a way that would permit an open election. Mr. Mbeki was named mediator by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The conflict in Ivory Coast pits a northern, largely Muslim rebel movement against a southern-based government in power since 2000.

The civil war has devastated a country once considered an oasis of peace and prosperity, thanks to its primacy in cocoa production and to a previous government that sought to accommodate the country’s more than 60 ethnic groups.

The main grievance of the northern rebels, led by Guillaume Soro, is that they were treated as second-class citizens by Mr. Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front. A further irritant was the determination of the government to prevent Mr. Ouattara, a northern Muslim, from running for president.

Mr. Ouattara had once served as prime minister, and later as a top official at the International Monetary Fund. The government cited a clause in the constitution barring any candidate whose father or mother was not born in Ivory Coast.

That was particularly galling to Mr. Ouattara’s supporters because in the days of French colonialism, French West Africa was ruled as a single entity. There was no independent Ivory Coast, and internal borders in the vast French-ruled region mattered little. Any legitimate resident could move to other parts of the region in search of work.

Mr. Mbeki’s mediation began after a compromise negotiated at Marcoussis, France, failed to end the conflict. He is no novice in the diplomatic arena: When racial apartheid was the law in South Africa, he was the prime contact with foreign governments from his exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.

His proposed solution, worked out in Pretoria and signed as an agreement this month, has three essentials:

• A permanent cessation of hostilities.

• Disarmament, starting with both sides decommissioning heavy weapons and the cantonment of military forces pending creation of a unified army.

• An October election that includes all political parties and movements that signed the peace accord.

Signatories included Mr. Gbagbo, Mr. Ouattara, Mr. Soro, former President Henri Konan Bedie and Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, appointed under an earlier accord as a gesture of national reconciliation.

The political turmoil in Ivory Coast began after the death of independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993. In contrast to Mr. Houphouet-Boigny’s government, which included important figures in power-sharing arrangements, his successors — Mr. Bedie, Gen. Robert Guei and Mr. Gbagbo — excluded from power virtually all except members of their own ethnic groups.

In 2000, Mr. Ouattara, leader of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR), was prevented from running for president.

“The constitution will not be changed unilaterally by the president, but all signatories to the Pretoria agreement chosen by their political organizations will be allowed to run in the October election,” Mr. Djangone-bi told The Times.

Mr. Gbagbo’s announcement came one day before the heavy weapons decommissioning was to be completed. The government is storing its decommissioned weapons in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast’s upcountry capital, and the rebels are storing theirs at Bouake, their northern headquarters.

The decommissioning of heavy weapons is a salubrious development to the extent that it puts a cap on potential carnage. But it is not equivalent to demilitarization. Although there are 4,000 French peacekeepers and more than 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, there has been talk in Abidjan, the former capital, that fighters are being recruited from Liberia and elsewhere to bolster local forces, which adds to the need for a quick settlement.

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