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Ivory Coast to Launch Reconciliation Forum - 2001-10-08

Tuesday, the government of Ivory Coast will launch a forum on national reconciliation following nearly two years of political and social turmoil in the West African country. The forum is meant to give rival factions a chance to engage in a political dialogue that, its backers say, could help bring an end to the country's socio-political crisis. But expectations among observers and among the Ivorian people are low, considering that only one of the four key figures in the crisis is participating in the talks.

The reconciliation forum was originally due to take place in July but has twice been postponed after key political figures refused to participate. The reason for the earlier postponements has not been resolved and most of the key political figures have not committed to attending. The only one of them who is set to participate is the man who organized the forum, President Laurent Gbagbo.

The country is still reeling following its first coup d'etat which took place in 1999. The leader deposed at the time, Henri Konan Bedie, is in exile in France. General Robert Guei, who led the coup and was himself later chased from power in a popular uprising, also will not be present at the talks.

But perhaps the most notable absentee is former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who is now an opposition leader and is at the center of the political crisis. Mr. Ouattara, a Muslim, left the country after he was barred from running in presidential and legislative elections last year over what the country's supreme court said were doubts about whether he is of fully Ivorian nationality. Mr. Ouattara remains in exile, but his exclusion from the elections has raised tensions among his followers, who are mostly Muslims of the large northern Dioula ethnic group, and others in Ivory Coast.

Tensions have erupted on several occasions over the past two years. Nearly a year ago, supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, who is now president of Ivory Coast, took to the streets when General Guei declared himself the winner of the presidential elections, despite having lost the balloting.

General Guei fled Abidjan, and Laurent Gbagbo assumed power. The next day, Gbagbo supporters battled Ouattara supporters who held street protests, demanding that new elections be held and that Mr. Ouattara be allowed to run in them. Hundreds were killed in street clashes.

The political impasse continues. Mr. Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans party insists that new elections be held. The party's secretary-general, Henriette Diabate, told VOA the party will not participate in the reconciliation forum unless the supreme court overturns its ban on Mr. Ouattara's candidacy. "It is not about holding a forum just to show the world that we have gathered people together," she said. "If we are going to hold a forum, we must hold a real forum that aims toward real and true reconciliation among Ivorians. What we have today is a large fracture in Ivorian society. Our party is fighting against a number of things, but above all, against exclusion. We want our president be given his right."

Mrs. Diabate says her party is demanding that the government release more than 40 RDR sympathizers who have been imprisoned without a trial since last year.

Party officials are also calling on the government to issue a formal apology for the massacre last year of 57 men believed to be Ouattara supporters. The party has strongly condemned a military court's decision in August to acquit eight paramilitary police agents who had been charged with the killings.

The Ivorian government is under pressure from the European Community and other foreign donors to ease political and social tensions before aid that was suspended after the 1999 coup can be resumed.

Ivory Coast continues to suffer from a severe economic downturn that has been made worse by the political and social problems of the past two years. Foreign investment has plummeted.

The country is the world's number one producer of cocoa and Africa's top exporter of coffee. Cocoa prices have tumbled in recent years. A drop in coffee prices, which have plummeted by 80 percent in the past year, has further hurt the economy.

With these economic problems in mind, some Ivorians are looking at the reconciliation forum with a degree of indifference. They say they have little time to worry about the political situation when they are busy trying to make a living. Prices are up, they say, and their salaries often go unpaid. Speaking to VOA on a street corner in Abidjan's central Plateau district, teacher Georges Zadi says he is disturbed by the politicians' refusal to attend the forum. But he says he believes the most important thing to do now is to move on. "Whether General Guei is there or not, whether President Gbagbo is there, whether former President Bedie is there, whether Alassane Ouattara is there, we will have to reconcile," he says. "The country needs to move ahead. We need to move on. We are in an underdeveloped country. We cannot waste our time with the General Gueis who are not happy, with the President Gbagbos who are not happy, with the Alassane Ouattaras who are not happy, with the Bedies who are not happy. That does not interest us."

Although key Ivorian political figures will be absent from the forum, those present will include top-level representatives from France - the former colonial power here - as well as heads of state of nations like Gabon, Mali, and Ghana.

Meanwhile, Western diplomats in Ivory Coast and some Ivorians say that while they do not expect any major breakthroughs to take place at the forum, there is concern that discussion of the country's political crisis may stir new tensions.