The crisis in the Ivory Coast

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The fragile peace deal France has brokered in its war-torn former west African colony Ivory Coast is already breaking down. Jacques Lhuillery explains the background.

France has imposed a new patronage on Ivory Coast, once the jewel of its African empire, by getting President Laurent Gbagbo to end a ruinous four-month war by accepting a power-sharing government.


France had procrastinated for weeks in the face of the rebellion which began in September 2002 — a conflict which divided the world's top cocoa grower in two, ravaged its economy and exacerbated religious and ethnic tensions — before deciding to act on the crisis.

Without wanting to appear impervious to Ivory Coast's fate, and not wanting to elicit criticism that it was reverting to its old policy of interfering in former colonies, France walked a tightrope for weeks.

But as the crisis showed no sign of ending, sparking fears that it could throw volatile west Africa into a new spiral of anarchy and violence, France finally decided to act more decisively.

After having deployed some 2,500 peacekeepers to enforce a shaky truce between rebels holding half the country and the government, Paris convoked a meeting of the belligerents to broker peace.

The ensuing peace accord allows Gbagbo to remain in office but with his powers severely curtailed by a national unity government that includes his opponents as well as rebels and a new "consensus" prime minister empowered to prepare the country for elections.

Gbagbo accepted for the post Seydou Diarra, a former prime minister who had also led Ivorian negotiations to reconcile four estranged leaders, including Gbagbo, during protracted talks in 2001 and 2002.

France further displayed who was boss by announcing Diarra's nomination itself and not letting Gbagbo, who was in Paris for a French-sponsored summit of African leaders on his country's crisis, do the honours.

According to indications, Gbagbo was supposed to have made the announcement himself after returning to Abidjan later the same day.

Sources said a meeting between Gbagbo and his French counterpart Jacques Chirac on January 25 saw the latter take a firm line with the underlying message that Gbagbo had no choice but to accept the treaty.

The peace deal, ratified in Paris on January 26, sparked widespread anti-French demonstrations in Abidjan, the country's main city, with tens of thousands besieging the French embassy and attacking French schools and businesses.

The current state of relations is easily the worst between the two countries since Ivory Coast's independence in 1960.

Meanwhile, apprehending threats to its estimated 20,000 nationals in Ivory Coast and its considerable business interests there, French diplomats posted in Abidjan have on several occasions had heated verbal exchanges with Ivorian officials.

France has been careful not to give the impression of rewarding the rebels for taking up arms and to demonstrate its respect for the constitution, leaving Gbagbo's claim to the presidency intact.

The treaty has several humiliating riders — notably the cantonment and disarming of government forces under French and west African supervision — putting the loyalist troops on a par with the three rebel insurgents.

This has been a bitter pill, as attested by a Gbagbo aide who was incensed that the main rebel group got two ministerial berths in the new government. "It's enough for people to take up arms to enter the government," he said.

The Ivorian army chief of staff issued a communique saying that parts of the peace accord were "humiliating" to security forces, but appealed for calm.

The peace accord also allows France, the European Union, a representative of the Group of Eight (G8) — which includes Russia with the G7 most industrialised nations — and multilateral agencies like the World Bank to monitor if Ivory Coast is conforming to the tenets of the peace accord.

The deal also throws out several initiatives launched by Gbagbo including a process of identification for Ivorians and foreigners, who comprise 30 percent of the population.

Landholding laws will be amended and there will be investigations into persecution and killings committed during the crisis, especially the alleged "death squads" working for the government.

To add insult to injury, the pact stipulates that French and West African forces will ensure the protection of members of the new government "if necessary".

Another small detail, but one that speaks volumes, is the stipulation that the Ivorian president will have to make public the state of his health every year.

January 2003


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