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End of Ivory Coast Civil War Remains Elusive, 1 Year After Peace Deal - 2004-01-27

A peace agreement signed a year ago to end a civil war in Ivory Coast remains largely on paper, with the country still divided and armed militias stirring up trouble in the countryside.

On January 24 last year, on the outskirts of Paris, west African heads of state applauded as they witnessed the signing of a peace agreement aimed at ending the civil war in Ivory Coast.

Officials from Ivorian political parties hugged, cried and sang the national anthem. Officials from the former colonial power, France, called it a historic day.

The accord established a power-sharing government between Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, opposition parties and the northern-based rebels. It also called for disarmament of rebels, a new human rights committee and constitutional changes, including expanding land ownership, nationality and voting rights to many northerners now considered foreigners.

President Gbagbo called the accord bitter medicine, but urged the people to try it.

He said the remedy might work or might not work. He also said patience and tolerance were needed.

Since then, French peacekeepers have prevented renewed fighting, but nothing of substance from the accord has been implemented. Rebels are still armed, Ivory Coast is still divided, and there are no administrative services in rebel-held areas. Lawlessness is on the rise.

And there are no signs things will change anytime soon. In his New Year's address, Mr. Gbagbo stirred up an old controversy, calling for key points of the accord to be submitted to a referendum.

One Abidjan newspaper suggested he was putting more oil on the fire. The idea of a referendum revived a political debate that first surfaced during the 1990s over who exactly is an Ivorian, who gets to own land, who gets to vote in elections and who can be a candidate for office.

This debate ultimately led to the country's first coup in 1999 and the exclusion of a popular, northern candidate, Alassane Ouattara, from the 2000 presidential election.

Now many northerners, such as opposition leader Cisse Bacongo, argue questions over citizenship were settled by the peace agreement. Southerners, in contrast, want the debate to continue.

Speaking during a recent television debate, Mr. Bacongo said he sees no point in a referendum. He said the peace accord was a compromise, where everybody wins and everybody loses, but at least the matter is put to rest and Ivory Coast can move on peacefully.

A member of Mr. Gbagbo's party, Hubert Oulaye, disagreed, saying Ivorians have a right to approve or reject the peace deal. He said the international community and the signatories of the peace deal need to give Ivorians a chance to determine their own future.

The idea of the referendum has also given hope to opponents of the accord that it will never be implemented.

At a recent political rally, a close ally to President Gbagbo and the leader of his party, former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, said rebels will be left with nothing once they disarm.

"It is because of their weapons that we call them rebels," said Mr. N'Guessan. "So if they hand over their weapons and submit themselves to the constitution, which they were trying to overthrow, then we can say they have failed."

An Africa expert at the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs, Alex Vines, says peace in Ivory Coast is tenuous.

"Both sides are deeply suspicious of each other and they continue to rearm," he explained. "Both the rebels and the government are continuing to obtain weapons and ammunition, which is not a good signal of any confidence at all. The only thing that has avoided further bloodshed is the very robust presence (a) by France, and (b) now with West African peacekeepers, and (c) with a contribution from the U.N. also."

France is asking for the deployment of several thousand more U.N. peacekeepers to help with disarmament.

Ultimately, Mr. Vines says, it is the presidential election scheduled in October 2005, which will determine whether the peace deal is a success.

"Eventually, I think the key issue is when there will be another election in Cote d'Ivoire and as the rebels have consistently said they regard the previous election as illegitimate," commented Mr. Vines. "The danger is that there is still 18 months or so before the next election in Cote d'Ivoire; that is a long time to wait in this kind of limbo situation."

Even though the United Nations is not sending new peacekeepers for the time being, it has sent a fact-finding delegation to Ivory Coast to help ensure the elections will be transparent and reflect the will of Ivorians.

But with a quarter of the more than 16 million people considered foreigners, the question of who is Ivorian remains unsettled.