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African Union Moves to Heal Ivory Coast


The streets of the coastal city of Abidjan are quiet again after 10 days of rioting against the French blamed on supporters of the president of Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Laurent Gbagbo. The streets are also emptier now that thousands of people - mostly westerners - have fled the scene because of violence.

The rage against France comes after years of Cote D'Ivoire's economic and other ties to Paris following the country's independence in 1960. The West African nation's stability and progress was seen as a model for the region until a 1999 coup and subsequent flawed election in 2000 that set northern and southern Ivorian factions against each other. That election gave the presidency to Laurent Gbagbo after denying the candidacy of northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whom the courts ruled was not born in Cote D'Ivoire as required by the constitution.

Tensions erupted again in 2002 when northern rebels attempted a coup against Mr. Gbagbo, after which France brokered a peace agreement including a unity government giving posts to northerners. A United Nations peacekeeping mission that included France separated government and rebel forces, but as Abdulaye Dukule, a journalist with AllAfrica.com notes, the mission could not stop actions by both sides. "The rebels kept the line drawn between the north and the south," he says. "They kept Bouake as their headquarters. They recruited mercenaries from Burkina Faso and Liberia. So, Gbagbo became impatient and carried out some air raids against them."

One of those government raids was against positions in Bouake, where a French military camp was hit resulting in the deaths of nine French peacekeepers. President Gbagbo said the action was a mistake, but Paris responded by attacking the tiny Ivorian air force, destroying four aircraft and three helicopters. After the incident, radio and television broadcasts called on people to take action against the French, which triggered the mayhem in Abidjan. The violence has prompted the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Cote D'Ivoire, along with demands to stop the "hate" broadcasts.

Former U.S. Ambassador Princeton Lyman, now with the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, says perceptions, along with that attack on the Ivorian air force, have damaged French peace efforts. "There is a suspicion on the part of the government and the pro-government people that the French have been, in fact, sympathetic with the rebels that their military there has in effect been protecting the rebels from being attacked by the goverment," he tells VOA.

With France less able to mediate, the African Union - specifically South African President Thabo Mbeki - has stepped into the lead position. The image of Africans solving their own problems bodes well on a number of fronts, as Roberta Cohen of the Washington-based Brookings Institution asserts. "One of the reasons why the world community is very enthusiastic to have the African Union there is because it enables the west to not have to intervene," she says. "I think it could probably save face for the French because they can't really act as a neutral force to end this conflict."

However, Ms. Cohen says the African Union's effort may not fully succeed because it is taking on a mediation role for the first time in West Africa, and may not have the political capital, logistics and other capabilities to resolve the conflict. But, she believes that the AU may be more effective than the West African regional organization ECOWAS, which has mediated in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone with mixed results.

Jennifer Cooke with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says that despite this African Union effort, France will have to remain involved in the peace process because of its strong economic presence and other historic factors. She says France's long standing presence in the country, though tarnished now, is still needed to help ensure that both the government and rebels keep to the terms of the peace accord they have signed. Ms. Cooke also says that to achieve peace, answers have to be found to serious problems that go back long before the current conflict. "There are so many unresolved issues that are at the root of what's happening right now - questions on the issues of nationality, land tenure, citizenship, and eligibility for the presidency for example," she says.

Many of those issues are rooted in Cote D'Ivoire's constitution, and cannot be changed without a public referendum that may be difficult to hold for now in light of recent tensions. But observers say that without those changes, Cote D'Ivoire cannot regain its stability and status as a lawful and prosperous nation.

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