30 September 2002

West Africa: Ivorian Rebels Warned to Negotiate or Face Regional Intervention

Johannesburg — An emergency one-day summit on Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) ended with a pledge by West African leaders to mediate between the government and the rebels. If negotiations fail to end the conflict, the leaders agreed to dispatch a regional military force.

The decision came during a crisis summit of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) on Cote d'Ivoire in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. The emergency meeting took place on day 12 of what started as a mutiny by dissident troops, in a well-coordinated attack on three key cities, including Abidjan, the main metropolis, which is also the country's economic capital, largest port and government centre.

After the summit, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), told a news conference the negotiations would begin immediately. Earlier, in an address to the summit, which was held in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, Wade said: "We are in favour of direct talks between the mutineers and the Cote d'Ivoire government".

The dissidents, who launched the uprising on September 19, failed to capture Abidjan, but they are still in control of a number of strategic cities, including Bouake in the centre and Korhogo further north. The government has alleged that the dissidents are backed by a regional 'rogue state,' which is widely interpreted to mean Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire's northern neighbour.

Eleven West African presidents, joined by South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, the current chairman of the African Union (AU), attended the gathering of the 14-nation group. The summit host, President John Kufuor, told his fellow West African leaders: "It is only a fool who does not worry when his neighbour's house is on fire," echoing the concern of other regional heads of state that the troubles in Cote d'Ivoire were in danger of spilling over its borders.

A presidential contact group, made up of Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Nigeria Togo and Guinea-Bissau, is to lead the mediation mission. The group has received instructions to "establish contact with the insurgents, prevail upon them to immediately cease all hostilities, restore normalcy to the occupied towns and negotiate a general framework for the resolution of the crisis," in Cote d'Ivoire.

If these efforts at negotiation and dialogue fail, Ecowas army chiefs have orders to prepare a military force to intervene in the crisis. Wade said all Ecowas countries had agreed to participate in a West African intervention army, known as Ecomog, the military arm of the regional grouping.

But Cote d'Ivoire has indicated that it would like diplomatic and logistical support from the region, rather than direct military involvement. Off the record, diplomats said it would be difficult to impose a peacekeeping force without Ivorian consent.

The rebels are similary opposed. Reuters News Agency quoted one Ivorian rebel commander, Tuo Fozie, saying he would resist an Ecowas intervention, regarding it as an attempt to deprive the rebels of success. "If Ecomog comes here, there won't be peace for 20, 30, 40 years. There must be justice".

In response to the summit's mediation decision, Fozie was more positive. He said: "If it's in aid of peace, we are ready".

However, analysts suggest that the Cote d'Ivoire authorities may have serious reservations about direct negotiations with the rebels, who they accuse of staging an attempted coup, backed by an unnamed foreign government.

Cote d'Ivoire has indirectly pointed a finger at neighbouring Burkina Faso, straining already poor relations between the two countries.

The final Accra summit communique made an oblique reference to those tensions. "The heads of state and government appealed to Presidents Gbagbo and (Burkina's President Blaise) Compaore to urge their peoples to maintain relations of good neighbourliness, fraternity and solidarity," it said.

In a telephone interview following the meeting, the Ecowas executive secretary, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, provided more details about the peace initiative adopted by the leaders.

Will the presidential contact group include participants other than the presidents of Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, and Togo?

There is a special representative of the African Union, to be appointed by President Thabo Mbeki and the chairman of the Ecowas ministerial mediation and security council, Senegal's Foreign Minister, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio.

When do the mediation and the negotiations between the Cote d'Ivoire and the rebels start?

Immediately. The contact group will be identifying spokespeople on the side of the rebel troops. They will need to agree suitable venues with them for a meeting with the heads of state and give them the necessary assurances that the negotiations are in good faith and designed to prevent the country from plunging further into instability.

How soon can we expect that to happen?

It's a matter of days.

And failing successful mediation by these Ecowas heads of state?

Well, at the same time, the defence and security commission of Ecowas, comprising the military chiefs of staff, has been asked to convene a meeting to start planning for a possible intervention force, in the event that dialogue and negotiations are not able to resolve the crisis.

Both President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire and President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso attended the Accra summit. There is considerable tension between the two countries and the Ivorian authorities have obliquely accused Ouagadougou, or at least suspects Burkina, of backing the rebels and involvement in the coup. Did the two meet?

They had a very collegial relationship. They were both frank in their positions and I think that the chemistry was quite good between them. Indeed the meeting as a whole created an appropriate atmosphere for very positive discussions.

At the end we feel very satisfied that we have been able to achieve a collective position in West Africa, to stand firm in the defence of democracy and good governance.

But did Presidents Gbagbo and Compaore meet? It was reported that they embraced.

This was a one-day meeting with a very packed schedule, so the summit did not really offer opportunities for bilaterals. But I can say there was no open hostility shown by either side or by either one towards the other. And I understand they talked for some time.

You say that both were 'frank,' how frank?

President Gbagbo explained that he has never directly accused the government of Burkina Faso of being directly involved in what is going on in Cote d'Ivoire, or any other government for that matter. But the fact is that the Ivorian authorities also know that, among the rebels, there are nationals from other countries. Obviously based on their own intelligence and what they know. We also know that our sub region has a number of non-state actors…

Do you mean mercenaries?

Mercenaries. For that matter, that is a problem that we have to deal with collectively. They come from all over the sub region, but particularly from the Mano River Union (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) area, where there has been instability for a long time and where a group of young people have made their livelihood fighting governments and the legal authorities of their countries.

Can you confirm mercenary involvement in the mutiny in Cote d'Ivoire?

At Ecowas, we have not made any such findings, but the Ivorian authorities believe that to be the case and I have no reason to doubt their sources.

President Charles Taylor of Liberia was one of the heads of state at the summit, what did he have to say about this?

He was very supportive of the government of Cote d'Ivoire and pointed out that, to a large extent, he has been facing a similar kind of situation in Liberia, where a rebel group has been challenging the authority of the government of Liberia.

President Taylor regretted that he has not received the same kind of attention that Cote d'Ivoire is getting. But he is nevertheless sympathising with Cote d'Ivoire and would like to be part of the fight to restore democracy and good governance and constitutional rule in Cote d'Ivoire.

Realistically, do you think mediation between the government and the rebels will work, or should we expect to see an Ecomog peacekeeping force intervene in the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire?

I hope not. We will try our best. The high level contact group will work hard to impress upon the rebels that they need to resolve whatever grievances they have, through negotiation and dialogue. But if they persist in defying the authority of their government and the sub region, obviously then there will be no choice but to stand firmly in defence of the rule of law.

But am I right in saying that the Ivorian government does not favour regional military intervention? It has asked for diplomatic and moral support as well as logistical assistance. Surely you cannot send in a force if the government doesn't want it or ask for it?

President Gbagbo has clearly said that he prefers a negotiated settlement, to avoid further loss of life and destruction of the infrastructure of his country. We work very closely with the government of Cote d'Ivoire, but I don't think we will have any divergent views on how to handle the problem.

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