Sunday, November 07, 2004


Ivory Coast primer #2

The BBC, a.k.a. "The Beeb," is one of the world's foremost sources for news. They regularly put out, in a question-and-answer format, basic primers regarding major stories. The one below is on the conflict in Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast, previously West Africa's richest country, has been divided between north and south - between rebels and the national army - since September 2002.

Government air strikes on rebel-held territory in the north this week, and clashes on the ground between the two sides, marks the first major unrest since a peace deal brokered by France in January 2003.

BBC News looks at the reasons behind the conflict and whether peace and prosperity can return.

What happened to the peace accord?

The power-sharing "government of unity" outlined in the peace pact has never lived up to its name and the January 2003 peace agreement was never fully implemented.

The former ruling party - the Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI) - pulled out at the beginning of March 2004, accusing President Laurent Gbagbo of "destabilising the peace process".

In protest at the suppression of an opposition march in Abidjan which left scores dead, the ex-rebels, now called the New Forces (FN), and the main opposition party, the Rally of the Republicans, also withdrew from the government.

A UN report said the security forces had singled out suspected opposition supporters to be killed.

The disarmament programme - supposed to begin on 8 March - failed to kick off in any meaningful way.

The FN refuse to disarm until free and fair elections, scheduled for 2005, have taken place.

When did civil war break out in the first place?

The uprising began on 19 September 2002 with a mutiny by troops unhappy at being demobilised.

But it quickly turned into a full-scale rebellion, voicing the unhappiness of northern Muslims at what they saw as discrimination by the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, a northern Muslim, was barred from standing in presidential elections because of a new law which said that presidential candidates must be born in Ivory Coast and both parents must be Ivorian.

He was accused of being from Burkina Faso, even though he had previously been prime minister of Ivory Coast. He has represented Burkina Faso at the World Bank.

For some Muslims, this symbolised their marginalisation - many northerners have family ties in Burkina Faso or Mali.

The FN and the opposition insist that the law must be changed if there is to be any

A related law, making it easier for those born to foreign parents to become Ivory Coast citizens, was discussed in parliament but then withdrawn after Mr Gbagbo's supporters blocked it.

Why was the law on presidential candidates changed?

Southern politicians expressed fears of being "swamped" by immigrants.

Ivory Coast used to be West Africa's richest country.

It is the world's largest producer of cocoa, the raw ingredient of chocolate.

During the time of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, immigrants from its poorer neighbours were encouraged to do menial work in Ivory Coast.

Foreigners, mainly from Burkina Faso and Mali, are estimated to count for a third of the population.

In the 1990s, the economy started to go downhill and Ivorians began to resent such a large foreign presence.

It was then that former President Henri Konan Bedie introduced the concept of "Ivoirite", or Ivorianness.

Why does Ivory Coast matter?

Neighbours Burkina Faso and Liberia have been accused of backing the rebellion.

They have denied this but it raises the nightmare scenario of other countries being dragged into the conflict.

There have been several xenophobic attacks on Muslims and foreigners in government-controlled areas.

Since the conflict began, many thousands of these African expatriate workers have returned to their home countries.

This has already hurt the whole region as poor countries lose valuable remittance earnings.

Most French-speaking West African countries share the same currency, the CFA franc, and instability in Ivory Coast has hit investment and confidence across the region.

What is the French interest?

France is the former colonial power and has had a military base in Abidjan since the 1960s.

France guarantees the CFA franc and its businesses still dominate the economy.

Until anti-French protests led Paris to urge "non-essential" citizens to leave, there were 16,000 French nationals in Ivory Coast.

Some 4,000 French troops have also been monitoring a ceasefire line across the middle of the country.

This is why France was so determined to push all the sides together and get them to agree to end the fighting and form a national unity government.

Why the anti-French feeling?

Because of the peace deal brokered by the French.

Rebels say they were promised the key defence and interior ministries under a power-sharing agreement, although this does not appear in the official text.

Supporters of Mr Gbagbo in the commercial capital, Abidjan, accuse the French of forcing him to sign this deal.

Since the conflict broke out, Mr Gbagbo has said the French army should have intervened to protect him, as a democratically elected leader.

So what happens next?

The situation is not looking good.

With the power-sharing government on the rocks, and new clashes between government troops and rebels, any prospect of differences being resolved at the negotiating table is receding.

The presence of international peacekeepers is being seen as increasingly important to prevent a return to full scale civil war and to help with any disarmament if it can happen.

The UN now has some 6,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast to support around 4,000 French troops monitoring a buffer zone between the two sides.

The New Forces and pro-Gbagbo militias were supposed to have started disarming on 15 October but the former rebels refused because laws making it easier for those of foreign origin to gain citizenship and contest presidential elections had not been changed, as agreed at a meeting of West African leaders in July.


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