Washington, DC — For the first time, last week, the United Nations Security Council expressed its grave concern over the volatile situation in Cote d'Ivoire, warning of "its serious consequences for the population of this country and the region." The last time there was any positive news was when Senegal's foreign minister and leaders of the West African regional grouping, Ecowas, successfully brokered a ceasefire between the MPCI rebels and the Ivorian government of Laurent Gbagbo. Since them, a peace process led by Togo's President Eyadema has made little progress and two new rebel groups have emerged in the west of the country near the border with Liberia. All three groups are angry at the increased role of the French army in the conflict, further complicating negotiations. Amara Essy, Amara Essy, interim chairman of the African Union Commission, was in Washington, DC last week to talk with members of the African diaspora about the African Union. AllAfrica's executive editor, Akwe Amosu and senior diplomatic correspondent Charles Cobb, Jr. took the opportunity, in this first part of the interview, to get his views on the Ivorian crisis.
The situation in Cote d'Ivoire seems to be out of control; the peace process does not seem to be working and the fighting seems to be getting worse. Is that fair comment?
You know, it is true. When you have a conflict, the beginning is always difficult. In Liberia, we had seventeen agreements before we came to peace, but I hope that in Cote d'Ivoire we will not have so many agreements.
The fact is that you have a Contact Group chaired by President Eyadema, that is meeting in Lome. Myself, I was in Lome for two days to speak with the rebels. You know, it's a long process because this movement is diversified. You have many people who come from a mutiny, and you have the rebels. The mutineers are former soldiers who had left the army and came back. So it's very mixed. You have civilians. It's not easy to negotiate because every group has it's own objectives. And so it will take time.
President Eyadema is doing his best. But we realize that we need to help the negotiation process. That is why we lobbied to have a meeting between the President of Burkina Faso, Mr. Blaise Compaore and Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, President of Cote d'Ivoire. They met in Bamako and I think that it can help the negotiation process in Lome, because you know that Cote d'Ivoire is the country that has many people who came from the region.
You have three million Burkinabe, one million Malians, you have one million Nigerians; same for Ghana, everywhere. So you need to have close relations between the President of Cote d'Ivoire and neighboring countries, because they are all concerned by anything that arises in Cote d'Ivoire. So this meeting was very important, because you know that they have lots of accusations but no proof. But the fact that they met is a good thing.
Is the relationship between President Gbagbo and President Compaore at the heart of this conflict?
You know, it's strange. They had a good relation before. When the President of Cote d'Ivoire was in the opposition, he was helped by President Compaore. But when he came to power, relations were not so warm. But I think that this meeting in Bamako will help [with] the peace process.
With the entry of the new rebel groups in the west of the country,many people are seeing the hand of Liberia's president, Charles Taylor. Don't you need to engage Charles Taylor in this process?
Well, you know, you find many people in this rebellion, some speaking English. You know that in Cote d'Ivoire we speak French. So you don't know if they came from Sierra Leone or Liberia. But the fact is that since we have all these people in Cote d'Ivoire, we need to have a good relations with all the heads of state in the region. But, Taylor, when we spoke to him, he denied that he was involved in this conflict.
Well, what do you think of that, as the head of the AU? Taylor has been accused by a range of people as a destabilizing force in the entire West African region and Cote d'Ivoire is only the latest example of this. What is your assessment, as head of the African Union?
No, as the President of the African Union, I cannot accuse somebody if I have no proof. But yes, I heard this rumor that he is involved in this crisis. I phoned him and we spoke, he denied. That is the truth.
You know, the fact is that today, the big problem of Africa is poverty. We have lots of mercenaries around this region. With some little money, you can use them. So I don't know. Before in Liberia, we had seven or eight factions. After the victory of the NPLF, all the factions remained in the bush. So I don't know really if Taylor is directly involved or [whether] it is people who are looking for a job, from Sierra Leone, RUF or what. You know that we do not have an intelligence service in the African Union, so I can't tell you if it's true or not true. But I received this information that he was involved.
Can we go back to the peace process? We saw that the negotiation of the ceasefire seemed very successful and Senegal seemed to play a helpful role jointly with Ecowas in getting that agreement. Why did Senegal not continue to play a leading role at the talks, in the peace process?
You know, me, I am African Union. I am not Ecowas. That is a problem inside Ecowas. You know, in Accra, they set up a Contact Group and Senegal was not a member of this Contact Group. Maybe that's why, I don't know.
We're hearing stories that there is a lot of tension between Senegal and Togo over this whole matter, and that, that is, in itself, proving a problem in the peace process.
I think that if they have a problem they will resolve this in the African manner.
You said that you, yourself, had taken an initiative to get the meeting between Compaore and Gbagbo. Do you think you're going to go on playing a stronger role now in the process as head of the African Union? Is it not time for you to do that?
No, what we could do as African Union is to help the regional institutions, as we did in the Congo, you know, with SADC, in Eldoret, in Machakos, in the case of Somalia and Sudan. I think the pillars of [the] African Union are the regional organizations, Ecowas, SADC, Igad and others. We cannot be in the front with them.
What about the French? What about the role that the French are playing? They've sent more troops now and there is a certain amount of anxiety about who is driving that aspect of the situation?
You know, in Cote d'Ivoire you have a great population of French. Cote d'Ivoire also has an agreement with France. This is an old agreement. If they have [there is] aggression from abroad, the French have to help the government. But to do this, they need to have the proof that there is an external aggression.
But it looks as though the rebels are already very annoyed to see the increased role of the French and that won't help the peace process.
You know, rebels are rebels. I don't think it is a good way to resolve a conflict, to take arms. You can dialogue. Cote d'Ivoire has today 102 parties. One group cannot claim to resolve all the problems of Cote d'Ivoire by itself. They have to deal with all the political parties on the ground.
How do you feel to see your country, your home country, once considered one of the most stable in Africa, being torn asunder by conflict?
Very sad, it's very painful for me. Very painful, because all my dreams dropped one day. You know, Cote d'Ivoire was a very poor country. When we gained independence, many countries became socialist. They nationalized all enterprises. But we had a President called Houphouet-Boigny who believed in free enterprise; he said that in Cote d'Ivoire, we have to build a new enterprise, so we have to be open to the free market. So that made Cote d'Ivoire prosperous. And we used to sing every time that peace is not a word; it is a mode of behavior. We were in peace for a long time, and we never thought that what's going on now could happen in Cote d'Ivoire.
And that is the lesson for all African states. Nobody is guaranteed to avoid trouble. Last time I was in Kenya, and Kenya was a very prosperous country. Now there are fears also that what happened in Cote d'Ivoire can happen everywhere. So I think that we need to organize ourselves, in terms of how to manage our countries, because the danger is always there.
Why did this happen in Cote d'Ivoire? You know you can have many reasons. When you don't control the price of your products, when you have no control on your economy because you cannot control the prices of cocoa, coffee and so on, and you have huge population coming from outside, you have to choose a policy to handle this. And I think that now, the people who will rule Cote d'Ivoire have to know that the characteristic of Cote d'Ivoire is the diversity of Cote d'Ivoire. That is very important; so all the politicians will have to take that into consideration today.
But I think also that we need to pay more attention to the economic problem. You can have some mistake in political management, but the economy is going down, this kind of problem can happen anytime.