London — West African leaders called on the United Nations Tuesday to convert the regional peacekeeping mission operating in troubled Cote d'Ivoire into a UN peacekeeping force.
The appeal came after a three-hour, closed door heads-of-state summit in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, to try to jump start the faltering peace process in Cote d'Ivoire. The country remains divided after the rebellion in September last year.
The Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his counterparts from Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Togo - with Ghana's John Agyekum Kufuor as host - attended the meeting in Accra, along with the Ivorian prime minister, Seydou Diarra.
Cote d'Ivoire peace negotiations stalled after government ministers from the rebel groups, now known as the New Forces, suspended their participation in the power-sharing Cabinet in September, accusing Gbagbo of blocking their appointments to key posts and violating a French-brokered peace agreement. The Linas-Marcoussis accord was signed in Paris in January.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in a report Tuesday that the Ivorian peace process was in "serious difficulty". Annan said "the fundamental issues behind the current stalemate must be identified and urgently addressed," in order to give peace a chance in Cote d'Ivoire. His message was widely interpreted as a signal to the representatives of the New Forces to return to the reconciliation government, in a bid to reach a compromise with Gbagbo and make the Cote d'Ivoire peace deal work.
Annan also called on the Ivorian government to give priority to restructuring the national defence and security forces to try to persuade the New Forces to rejoin the peace process, disarm and yield the territory, almost half the country, which they continue to control in the north and west.
A summit statement said the regional leaders had agreed to dispatch 80 additional police to Cote d'Ivoire, to guarantee the security of officials in the coalition government. There had been complaints from New Forces' ministers that they were not able to work in safety.
But the former rebels were not present at the Accra meeting. Asked why not, the executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), Mohamed Ibn Chambas, described it as "a summit of heads of state." However, Chambas said, "consultations with ministers of Forces Nouvelles (New Forces)" were held before the Accra summit convened.
There was little sign that the emergency meeting achieved much, other than the appeal to the UN to send blue-helmeted peacekeepers to Cote d'Ivoire to form a larger presence and change the Ecowas operation into a full United Nations mission. Ecowas currently has 1,500 troops on the ground in Cote d'Ivoire. France has 4,000 troops stationed in its former colony.
Chambas said Ecowas would be sending a delegation of foreign ministers to the UN Security Council "to make the case for a UN peacekeeping operation in Cote d'Ivoire," which he described as "a significant and important decision". He added: "We believe at this point that it will be useful to increase the number of forces deployed in Cote d'Ivoire under Ecowas and also to transform this Ecowas mission into a UN force. So we send an appeal to the Security Council."
Reporters said the summit in Accra ended abruptly, with President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria leaving first, without comment. He was followed by the other heads of state, who also declined to speak to journalists. No formal declaration or communiqué was released. In a statement read by Chambas, the heads of state said that Gbagbo and Diarra "undertook to closely work together to ensure that the government of national reconciliation be able to function as a team. They also undertook to implement the programme of work drawn up by the government of national reconciliation".
Gbagbo was said to have emerged from the meeting smiling, though observers remark that there was little to smile about as the talks had failed to bridge the chasm between the opposing forces or reunite Cote d'Ivoire, still split into Gbagbo-controlled south and rebel-held north.
Chambas denied there had been an abrupt end to the meeting, which he said was characterised by "frankness and openness, because it was important that some of the mutual suspicion was dealt with". That "suspicion" is not limited to bad blood between Gbagbo and the former rebels, who tried to oust him in a failed uprising last year. There are also frosty relations among some regional leaders, particularly between Gbagbo and President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso.
Cote d'Ivoire has accused Burkina Faso of supporting the rebels, a charge repeatedly denied by the Compaore government in Ouagadougou. Last month, the Burkina authorities announced that they had foiled a coup plot, alleging that the putsch leader had recently been to Cote d'Ivoire and Togo and that it was a 'foreign-financed' takeover attempt.
Chambas said Gbagbo and Compaore talked - for the first time since Burkina's accusations surfaced. "They certainly met," Chambas said. "Incidentally Togo was also drawn into this fray of accusations and counter accusations. All three heads of state were able to speak frankly and directly on this issue. At the end of the day they agreed to build good neighbourly relations, because they appreciated that that would go a long way to stabilising the West African sub region".
Along with Gbagbo, Compaore, Obasanjo and Ghana's Kufuor, the current Ecowas chairman, summit participants included Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, Niger's Mamadou Tandja and Mathieu Kerekou of Benin.
All of them are well aware that the continuing conflict in Cote d'Ivoire - once a haven of stability and prosperity in West Africa - risks contaminating the whole region and sparking clashes potentially led by young, battle-hardened and ruthless rebels and mercenaries, who are now veterans of the brutal civil wars across the borders in Sierra Leone and Liberia.