Spoiling for a fight
On the eve of the Franco-African summit in Paris, forecast to be dominated by discussions about the civil war in Ivory Coast but boycotted by the country's president, armed Ivorian opposition groups hold back on their war threat, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The latest French attempts at diffusing tensions between rival political factions in Ivory Coast make a reasonable case for the argument that the former colonial master can still deliver the traditional benefactions. But in a grim environment, many Ivorians it seems, are simply not impressed. With 3,000 legionnaires currently stationed in the Ivory Coast, the name of France is already written in muddy letters in the book of the Ivorian government and its southern and predominantly animist and Christian supporters. On the eve of the 22nd Franco-African summit anti-French sentiment is gaining momentum in its former West African colony. The lack of French open support for the Ivorian government's cause, stirred outrage in southern Ivory Coast.
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Ivorian pro-government protesters vow to win the battle against armed opposition forces
There are signs, however, that the northern- based armed opposition groups in Ivory Coast are warming to the idea of French intervention. The different reactions to French intervention reflect the deep chasms at the centre of Ivorian politics today.
Armed Ivorian opposition groups, in deference to French and West African demands, held back on their war threat against the Ivorian government until the conclusion of the Franco-African summit, convened 20-21 February in Paris.
The Ivorian protagonists are all keen on regional West African support even though similar regional peace-making efforts in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone -- conceived in a spirit of good -- will fall apart for lack of real clout. Armed opposition groups in the two West African countries have learnt to their peril that regional efforts at peace-making have often been handicapped by gaping holes in their strategies. Invariably, the former colonial power imposes a solution: the example of the British in Sierra Leone drove the point home, and whetted French appetites for a similar intervention in Ivory Coast.
Still, in a flurry of diplomatic activity, representatives of the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement better known by its French acronym (MPCI) -- the main armed opposition group based in the northern, predominantly Muslim half of the country -- are touring West African capitals for discussions with regional heads of state and government.
"The heads of state have asked us to be patient and we respect what they say. We will wait until after the Franco-African summit before we decide what we shall do next," said Cherif Ousmane, one of the chief MPCI military leaders. The armed Ivorian opposition groups are angry because they say the Ivorian government has apparently reneged on their promise to give the MPCI the defence and interior portfolios in a government of national unity. While Ivorian President Laurant Gbagbo signed an agreement in Paris with representatives of the MPCI and other armed opposition groups to form a government of national unity and install Seydou Diarra, a Muslim northerner as his prime minister, he appears to have succumbed to pressure from his followers not to give the defence and interior portfolios as stipulated by the Paris agreement.
The Ivorian president has not entirely ruled out the possibility that the armed opposition groups be given the key defence and interior ministries, but he might have to face the wrath of his supporters who do not want him to make any further concessions to the armed Ivorian opposition groups. Carefully selecting Diarra, a compromise candidate, to head the new unity government, Gbagbo reluctantly realises that there must be broad agreement by Ivory Coast's disparate political, religious and ethnic groups about the future of the country. "Let's try this medicine," the Ivorian president grudgingly told his supporters in Abidjan. So far, he has kept his options open. "I invite you to accept the spirit of the Marcoussis [Paris] agreement, and therefore the text of the Marcoussis agreement, as a basis to work on," Gbagbo said. He appealed for calm.
The armed Ivorian opposition, however, has threatened to launch a full attack on the government stronghold of Abidjan, the country's largest city and commercial capital. "We are going to give the international community a week to make Gbagbo respect the [French- brokered Marcoussis] deal," warned Guillaume Soro, MPCI spokesman said. "We want total victory and, for us, if Gbagbo doesn't respect the accord, total victory means going to Abidjan and taking power," he added ominously. Soro, who led an armed opposition delegation to West African states met with Diarra in Ghana to discuss the rapidly-deteriorating situation.
Representatives of two main armed Ivorian opposition groups based in the southwestern part of the country -- the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO) and Justice and Peace Movement (MJP) are also holding talks with West African leaders.
From Ghana, the MPCI delegation flew to Burkina Faso on Monday to meet with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore. Their next stop was Nigeria, by far the most powerful West African country and Africa's most populous nation, which like Ivory Coast suffers from a politico-religious fault-line dividing the northern predominantly Muslim parts of the country from the mainly Christian and animist south. On Tuesday, the MPCI delegation left Nigeria for Mali, a predominantly Muslim northern neighbour of Ivory Coast.
The hoopla over Ivory Coast began on 19 September 2002 when troops mutinied and overpowered forces loyal to the Ivorian government in the northern half of the country. They stormed Bouake, the country's second largest city, and are at the moment headquartered there.
The Ivorian civil war has claimed hundreds of lives and about one million people have been made homeless since fighting began last September.
The Ivorian crisis is scheduled to dominate discussions at the Franco-African summit. Nevertheless, the Ivorian leader declined to travel to Paris to attend the Franco-African summit on the grounds that the situation in Ivory Coast was too explosive. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was still hoping that Gbagbo would change his mind and attend the Paris summit. "France has taken its responsibilities, we are waiting for the Ivorians to take theirs," he said.
With France unsympathetic, Gbagbo is reaching out to Washington. While regional initiatives are beginning to pay off, a growing number of government loyalists in Ivory Coast believe that a real breakthrough necessitates American intervention. The Ivorian protagonists have appealed to the international community, now busy with Iraq, to assist. The United Nations Security Council authorised France and the West African regional grouping Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to sort matters out in Ivory Coast.
Ominously, however, government supporters are in their desperation resorting to terror tactics. They fear the French will force Gbagbo to relinquish his fiefdom centred around Abidjan. "Death squads in Ivory Coast are made up of elements close to the government, the presidential guard and a tribal militia from the Bete ethnic group," the UN High Commission for Human Rights warned in a recently- released report. The strategy of instilling horror among their political opponents is a recipe for disaster, a headlong rush to tragedy.
The Ivorian armed opposition has not been sure-footed throughout the civil war either. Atrocities are reported to have been committed in armed opposition-held areas as well. While the rest of West Africa savours an impressive democratisation transformation process, Ivory Coast finds itself contemplating an altogether different challenge -- a prolonged and bloody civil war.