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Failed Ivory Coast Coup Amplifies Uncertainty Over Country's Future - 2002-09-21

Thursday's army mutiny in Ivory Coast capped three years of political and ethnic instability and military uprisings in the once peaceful and prosperous West African nation. The coup attempt is raising more questions about the country's political and economic future.

For more than three decades after it gained its independence from France in 1960, Ivory Coast was a model of stability in the region. That image was shattered in December, 1999, when the late General Robert Guei, a retired sports minister, led the country's first successful military coup. Foreign investors fled, international aid to the country was cut, and per capita income in the world's largest cocoa producing country continued on a steady decline.

General Guei ruled Ivory Coast for 10 months. He was driven from power in a popular uprising that erupted in October 2000 when he tried to declare himself the winner of national elections, even though poll results showed him losing to Laurent Gbagbo. Hundreds were killed.

After he was driven from power, the general maintained wide support among members of the military. But many Ivorians viewed him with distrust. People remember him for trying to stay in power after promising that he would serve only as an interim leader at the time of the coup. Many also resented the general for having allowed troops to open fire on demonstrators in the October 2000 uprising. In a speech last year, General Guei denied ever having ordered his troops to attack civilians.

With strong loyalties in the military, General Guei continued to cause concern for the Gbagbo government.

Fears that he would again incite a coup persisted amid U.S. newspaper reports last year that the general might be involved in arms trafficking deals with neighboring Liberia.

It is not clear whether President Gbagbo's mandate has been weakened by the coup attempt. He has lost one of his greatest rivals for power, but he has also lost a key ally. Interior Minister Emil Boga Doudou was shot to death during Thursday's fighting. In addition many members of the armed forces showed they are willing to turn against the president.

What is sure, analysts say, is that Ivory Coast is bound to suffer a setback in its efforts to regain stability.

Since the 1999 coup and the violence surrounding the 2000 elections, the government has worked to restore the country's image and bring back investment. In large part, it has succeeded.

International aid resumed gradually over the past year as did cooperation with the International Monetary Fund. Foreign investors began to return.

President Gbagbo last year brought together all four of the country's major political rivals, including General Guei, in a forum for national reconciliation. The forum ended with the adoption of a series of recommendations to resolve grievances that each of the political factions had.

The man considered to be Ivory Coast's top opposition leader, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, has accepted a number of ministerial posts for his party in a coalition government announced recently by President Gbagbo. Mr. Ouattara claims he was unfairly banned from running in the last presidential election. But he has dropped his demand for new elections.

Some observers say President Gbagbo's position might have been strengthened this week by his forces' victory over the insurgent soldiers in Abidjan, and even by General Guei's death. But, they say, Mr. Gbagbo has many tasks still ahead.

Not only must he continue political reconciliation efforts, but the president has the task of reorganizing the country's armed forces which, as this week's violence shows, are deeply divided. And he must satisfy military officers who got a taste of power during Ivory Coast's period of military government.

Experts say in the wake of the coup attempt, President Gbagbo has new opportunities, but also new challenges, as he tries to restore elusive stability to his country.