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Ivorian President Remains in Power as Election Procedures Prolonged


Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo marked seven years in office last week. His presidential mandate has been prolonged due to a peace accord signed in March. Opposition leaders say Mr. Gbagbo is abusing the accord to stay in power, while the president's supporters say he is carefully organizing upcoming elections to prevent the country from marching backwards into civil war. Phillip Wellman looks at the Gbagbo presidency for VOA in Abidjan.

Laurent Gbagbo became president of Ivory Coast in October 2000, following an election that he described as chaotic. Main opposition leaders were prohibited from contending and former coup-leader Robert Guei dissolved the electoral board and proclaimed himself the winner before all votes were counted.

Widespread protesting and riots ensued, forcing Guei to flee Abidjan. When Mr. Gbagbo assumed the presidency, more than 100 people had been killed and several-hundred more had been injured.

At the core of the country's discontent was an ethnic and religious mistrust provoked by former president, Henri Konan Bedie. His doctrine, known as Ivoirite, restricted Ivorian nationality only to those born in Ivory Coast, whose parents or grandparents were also born in the country.

Ivoirite labeled most people living in the predominantly Muslim northern half of the country as foreign. Many people in the region accused Mr. Gbagbo of continuing to promote the xenophobic rhetoric after taking office. But he has denied the claims.

Mr. Gbagbo's detractors also have accused him of promoting many soldiers from within his small ethnic Bete group to leadership roles in the army, while making the cocoa and coffee sectors increasingly political and corrupt. Mr. Gbagbo denies this. He says he has faced outside pressures and criticism against his presidency because he has tried to diversify the Ivorian economy away from French interests.

In 2002, rebels took up arms on behalf of the northerners, which led to civil war and created a division between north and south, which exists today.

Mr. Gbagbo's presidential mandate was supposed to end in October 2005, but due to the country's partition, his term has been extended twice through U.N. resolutions.

Steps towards reconciliation occurred in March when a peace accord was signed between Mr. Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro. The aim of the accord is to secure free and fair elections and resulted in Soro becoming prime minister.

But Gbagbo critics say the president is using the peace accord to hold power. U.N. resolution 1721, which was intended to be a final extension of his presidential mandate, was due to expire Wednesday, but the Ouagadougou agreement allows Mr. Gbagbo to remain in office until the next general election.

Spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, Niamkey Koffi, says Mr. Gbagbo is deliberately stalling the election process for his own benefit. Koffi says his party believes the president should leave office on the date stipulated in the U.N. resolution.

"We think that he has done what he can do and he should just go away and a new structure or new institution should be held just for the organization of the elections," said Koffi.

Koffi says Mr. Gbagbo has never held office by the will of the people and says the United Nations should assume a larger role in ensuring that new presidential elections are held as soon as possible.

Mr. Gbagbo's supporters say the United Nations agrees the best way forward for Ivory Coast is to let the president's government work towards achieving goals established in the Ouagadougou agreement.

Journalist Cesar Ebrokie of Notre Voie, a newspaper close to the president, says the opposition needs to be patient.

"To go to war is very easy, but to go back to peace is something difficult," said Ebrokie. "It needs cleverness, it needs a lot of will, it needs patience."

Ebrokie says says the process of organizing elections is moving slower than was previously expected because the president wants to make sure procedures are implemented perfectly so the country will have lasting peace.

"What we have to do is to wait for a new election," he said. "Now we are trying to find all the conditions of a good election. That is what we are doing. It is not clever to say this man [Gbagbo] has to go. What we have to do is put together our efforts to go to a new election."

The United Nations recently said it is concerned that the pace of the electoral process was moving too slowly. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council renewed arms and diamond sanctions against Ivory Coast in a bid to make the county stick to the terms of the peace accord.

The council said it would review the sanctions at the end of April or as soon as presidential and legislative elections take place.