West Africa: Ivory Coast Peace Plan Agreed; Will Gbagbo Sign?

Johannesburg — Cote d’Ivoire’s rival factions - including rebel and government representatives - agreed a French-brokered peace plan early Friday, to try and end the four-month civil war.

The agreement calls for a new government of national unity and reconciliation, to be led by a prime minister chosen by wide consensus. Despite earlier rebel demands that he should step down, President Laurent Gbagbo would not have to resign or give up power but would remain in office as head of state, albeit with diminished powers.

The draft agreement came after nine days of closed-door negotiations organised by the former colonial power, France, outside Paris. The proposals are expected to be submitted for approval or rejection by the Ivorian leader, who flew to the French capital, Thursday.

Other African leaders, as well as the United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, have been invited to a weekend summit in Paris by French president Jacques Chirac to witness the signing of the peace deal, if Gbagbo's acceptance can be secured.

Gbagbo and his French counterpart were scheduled to hold preliminary talks later Friday to discuss the text of the draft agreement brokered by French mediators.

Against the backdrop of renewed fighting in western Cote d’Ivoire, the rival Ivorian delegations have been meeting far from home at the French national rugby centre in Linas-Marcoussis, just outside Paris. They have spent days dissecting the causes of Cote d’Ivoire's woes, which sparked a failed coup by rebels on 19 September and split the country in two.

The deep issues at stake in Paris were both fundamental and diverse. They ranged from the legitimacy of Gbagbo’s election and his presidency to definitions of nationality, identity and citizenship - including the vexatious question of the eligibility of candidates for the Cote d’Ivoire presidency. Holding fresh "credible and transparent" polls was another agenda item on a long list, along with land and property ownership.

If endorsed by Gbagbo, the conclusions of the negotiations, which came in the early hours of Friday, would mark dramatic revisions to the Ivorian constitution and a drastic reduction of his powers, with the new premier overseeing much-needed reforms.

Gbagbo under pressure

But there is doubt that Gbagbo will accept the deal, even though he will come under heavy pressure from the French and his fellow West African leaders, backed up by Annan and South African President Thabo Mbeki, the current chairman of the African Union. All have been calling for a speedy negotiated settlement to the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.

Gbagbo’s foes dropped their demand that he must resign. The sticky issue of his departure was the major obstacle in early negotiations brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in Lome, Togo.

In return for Gbagbo accepting the package, the rebels would have to disarm. Disarmament is another prickly factor and the rebels will surely request security guarantees from France and the West African peacekeepers who have begun deploying in Cote d’Ivoire.

Gbagbo would stay on, despite losing powers to the new, arguably more powerful prime minister and an inclusive cabinet, apparently drawing in rebel representatives. Observers say the Ivorian president will have to demonstrate statesmanship and pragmatism, putting to the fore the interests of his country and the people of Cote d’Ivoire. ‘

But will he be able to stomach the reality of the rebels sharing a role in a new constitutional government? Gbagbo has accused them of invading Cote d’Ivoire, aided by unnamed ‘northern neighbours’ and mysterious financial backers. The rebels rebuke Gbagbo for marginalising sections of the country and the population.

Gbagbo will be keen to retain the goodwill of Paris and the presence of French troops, who have been monitoring the fragile ceasefire agreements between the government and the three rebel factions. The latest reported attacks in the west, close to the Liberian border, have again exposed the vulnerability of the Ivorian army and are likely to make Cote d’Ivoire even more dependent on French military assistance.

On Thursday, Gbagbo’s government appealed to France to send reinforcements after the army accused neighbouring Liberia of involvement in a rebel attack in western Cote d’Ivoire. "I urge France to take action and to fully commit itself side by side with the Ivorians, side by side with the government, so that all the rebels - who come from who knows where - get out of Cote d’Ivoire and leave the country alone. France must send troops to chase out these people," Gbagbo’s defence minister, Kadet Bertin, told French radio.

Shaky ceasefire violated

France already has 2,500 troops on the ground keeping the rival warring parties apart in a shaky truce which has been repeatedly violated by both sides in recent weeks.

An army spokesman announced Thursday that they had pushed back a rebel attack, close to the Liberian border in the west, though troops loyal to the Ivorian government were surrounded in the town of Toulepleu.

"It is regular Liberian troops who are attacking us," said Bertin, adding "I asked France to activate the defence pact (between our two countries) because we have been attacked by Liberian elements and since yesterday (Wednesday), our men have been encircled.

The Liberian deputy defence minister, Austin Clarke, firmly denied the accusation of his country’s involvement in the Cote d’Ivoire conflict. Clarke called the claims from Abidjan a "cover up" for what he described as collaboration between Ivorian soldiers and Liberian mercenaries who, he alleged, launched a cross border raid last Sunday.

Longstanding defence accords between Abidjan and Paris stipulate that if Cote d’Ivoire territory comes under attack, France should come to its assistance. Anxious for greater French military aid as it struggles to dislodge the rebellion, this is the first time Gbagbo’s government has claimed formally to have come under attack by Liberian security forces.

Paris has not officially replied to the Ivorian appeal, but analysts say it is unlikely that France will oblige because it is not convinced that the Liberian army is part of the fighting. This matter is bound to come up for discussion when Gbagbo and Chirac meet on Friday.

Reports said champagne corks popped in Linas-Marcoussis outside Paris early Friday, with the promise of lunch later at the Elysee, the presidential palace.

Best hope of peace

The draft peace package drawn up by the Ivorian government, rival political parties and rebel factions appears to be the best hope of peace in Cote d’Ivoire. Failure would leave a divided country and a divided population, with the prospect of the conflict escalating into a West African war - already a reality, with the fighting at the frontier with Liberia.

To make matters worse, bickering among regional leaders on how to handle the Ivorian crisis, has left them unable to present a united front. Reports say several West African presidents invited to Paris by Chirac will not be going, including the main coordinator of the stalled Lome peace talks, Togolese leader Gnassingbe Eyadema. Eyadema, who is sending his prime minister, is said to be unhappy that the negotiations were relocated to France.

Other reported absentees will be President Mamadou Tandja of Niger and Liberia’s Charles Taylor. But President John Kufuor of Ghana, which shares a border with Cote d’Ivoire, is expected to attend the Paris summit. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade - the current Ecowas chairman - is said to be satisfied with the transfer of the talks’ venue to Paris.

A recent regional summit in Togo of the high-level West African contact group on Cote d’Ivoire ended without apparent consensus on how to proceed. A number of leaders appeared peeved that Paris had stolen their thunder and seized the initiative from Ecowas in trying to resolve the war in Cote d’Ivoire.

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