Monday, March 05, 2007

Ivory Coast tries to extend its Zone of Confidence

The president of Ivory Coast has signed a peace deal on the weekend with a rebel group in an effort to end a five-year long civil war. The deal will see the creation of a new government and calls for the departure of foreign troops from the troubled West African country. President Laurent Gbagbo signed the deal on Sunday with Guillaume Soro, head of the united rebel movement, the Forces Nouvelle. The peace deal will see a new transitional government established within five weeks and creates a new joint military command. The deal, brokered by neighbouring Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, also called for the removal of 9,000 UN troops and 4,000 French soldiers from the buffer zone called the "Zone of Confidence" that currently splits the country in two.

Ivory Coast has been divided between a loyalist Christian south and a rebel-held Muslim north since the war began in September 2002. The war started in Ivory Coast’s largest city, Abidjan but quickly spread to other cities. The two sides clashed for several months before they signed a peace deal signed in France in January 2003. However that accord was never implemented. Nor were follow-up deals in Ghana and South Africa. Talks stumbled repeatedly over disputes on disarmament and a national identity program to give immigrants the same rights as natives. The latest solution is a victory for long-term president Laurent Gbagbo at the cost of power-sharing with Soro's rebels.

Gbagbo has been president since 2000 although has never faced re-election since his initial victory, which itself was tainted by a northern boycott. He was born in 1945 into a Catholic family in the centre-west of the country in 1945. At school he was nicknamed “Cicero" because of his taste for Latin and he gained a PhD in history. He was employed as a university lecturer before being jailed for two years in 1971 for "subversive" teaching. He spent much of the 1980s in exile in Paris after challenging Houphouet-Boigny’s seemingly endless rule.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny was the father of independent Ivory Coast. He was a cocoa farmer who formed the country’s first agricultural trade union in 1944. He rose to prominence during the 1950s when he founded a multinational party Rassemblement Démocratique Africain which advocated independence for European colonies in Africa. Ivory Coast became independent in 1960 and Houphouët-Boigny was named first president. He would rule for the next 33 years until his death.

He cultivated political ties with West which insulated the Ivory Coast from the turmoil associated with the military uprisings that characterised the region. Ivory Coast would become one of the wealthiest countries in Africa under his guidance. But he also quashed all opposition and moved the country's capital from Abidjan to his hometown of Yamoussoukro where he also built Africa’s largest church modelled on St Peter’s in Rome at a cost of $300 million, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. This colossal edifice was built as a personal gift from Houphouët-Boigny to the Vatican.

When Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, he was succeeded by Henri Konan Bédié. Bedie’s rule faced a number of difficulties including economic pressure from falling world market prices for cocoa and coffee, internal corruption that steeply reduced foreign aid, and mounting political opposition. Bédié was accused of massive corruption and was overthrown in Ivory Coast’s first ever military coup in 1999. General Robert Guéï was persuaded to come out of retirement to lead the country. He led until the election the following year when Gbagbo was swept to power.

The civil war began two years later. The issue of voting rights was critical. Ex president Bédié had introduced a concept of "Ivoirite" (Ivorianness in English). A quarter of the population were immigrants, particularly from Burkina Faso, a poorer country to the north. Racial tensions bubbled to the surface after a 2000 law was drafted to ensure both parents of a presidential candidate to be born in Ivory Coast. This law expressly excluded presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara who represented the predominantly Muslim north, who were immigrant workers from Burkina and Mali working on the cocoa plantations.

Cocoa farmers have a lot of power in Ivory Coast. Cocoa is the dried and partially fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree that ends up being the key ingredient in chocolate. There are a lot of chocolate lovers and most of the planet’s cocoa is grown in West Africa and Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa producer and produces about 43 percent of the global crop. As a result of the civil war there, international cocoa prices rose sharply in 2002. As 20% of the price of chocolate is cocoa, eventually the price of the raw material will force its way into the product. Nestle kept a close eye on Ivory Coast. The war itself was a stalemate, Government forces maintained control of Abidjan and the south, but the rebels took the north and based themselves in Bouake.

Most of the fighting in the civil war ended by 2004 but it left the country split in half. The French sent in a force of 2,500 men to keep the peace and encouraged the groups to come to a compromise. The UN also sent in a peace mission called United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI). The two sides signed an agreement in 2004 and agreed to set of a government of national reconciliation but the rebels pulled out shortly after. The atmosphere of distrust lingered into the following years and the situation worsened when the Government used Belarussian mercenaries to bomb the rebel capital Bouake. They also accidentally killed nine French soldiers and France retaliated by destroying a bomber base in the capital Yamoussoukro.

Meanwhile Gbagbo’s original mandate as president expired in 2005 but with the country in disarray it was deemed impossible to hold an election, and his term in office was extended for a maximum of one year. But the situation was no better a year later and the UN Security Council endorsed another one-year extension of Gbagbo's term in November 2006. Nonetheless there have been signs of improvement. Ivory Coast's successful world cup campaign in Germany 2006 was influential in bring the country together.

The impoverished north in particularly wants simply to be recognised as genuine Ivorians. Despite the ability and charismatic charm of rebel leader Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, there are little or no government-run health or education services in the rebel-held north and west. 750,000 people were uprooted by the fighting, and over a million children have been without schooling since the war started five years ago. The latest deal offers them a small slice of improvement.

This peace plan envisages a line of observation posts staffed by "impartial forces", running through the centre of the current buffer zone. The observation posts would be halved in number every two months. It offers citizenship to migrants and envisions elections within 10 months. French Aid and Cooperation Minister Brigitte Girardin has praised the accord and said that France would consider pulling out its troops deployed in Ivory Coast. The country's Cicero, President Gbagbo, sounded optimistic of success.
"This is peace in Africa, this is peace by Africa,” he said “"All the problems which are born in Africa can find their solution in Africa."


Ruth Gidley said...

That map looks familiar - it looks just like the one we've got on Reuters AlertNet! Thought you might like to know we've just updated our crisis briefing on Ivory Coast and added new statistics, with a special focus on the humanitarian side of things.

nebuchadnezzar said...

Thanks Ruth,

pls let me know if I am infringing any copyright and I'll remove the image immediately.