21 November 2003

West Africa: Ecowas Chairman Kufuor Speaks on Faltering Ivorian Peace Talks

interview

Accra — Cote d'Ivoire's prime minister, Seydou Diarra and former rebel-turned-information minister, Guillaume Soro, held talks in Accra with Ghanaian President John Agyekum Kufuor on Thursday to try to revive the deadlocked peace process. Kufuor, the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), his foreign minister, Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo and the Ecowas executive secretary, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, were again trying to persuade Soro and his New Forces' colleagues to rejoin Cote d'Ivoire's national reconciliation government, from which they pulled out in September. At the time, Soro and others accused Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo of violating the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace accord and refusing to share power. The New Forces withdrew to their stronghold in the central city of Bouake and to zones under their control in the north. So, how successful was Kufuor and the other regional mediators in bringing together the two sides and helping to end the impasse, which continues to stymie peace efforts in Cote d'Ivoire? The Ghanaian leader spoke with allAfrica.com's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Accra.

President Kufuor, have Guillaume Soro and the New Forces agreed to rejoin the national reconciliation government in Abidjan, to take up their ministerial positions once again, because last week they were saying that President Gbagbo has to go first.

I shouldn't be answering this question to you now. I've asked for patience on all sides and I believe with patience, you will see, we may move mountains.

But what is the real problem in this peace process in Cote d'Ivoire. What is really going on?

What is going on is a continued search for a way forward for the transitional government, truly. That is what they came to see me about. All sides in a way want the transitional government to be on course and, as to how to get it going, is what is engaging all of them.

If that is the case, why then have we been hearing talk of a return to war? At the weekend, the New Forces accused the Ivorian army chief, General Mathias Doue, of threatening to attack areas under their control. There may not be a return to arms, but there is certainly a war of words -

It is not necessarily a hot war. It could just be a background to put pressure on everybody to try to make a way forward.

Guillaume Soro, the Information minister and senior member of the New Forces, met you on Wednesday, apparently to put forward a plan for how to break the deadlock - including internationalising the regional mediation effort. What was he proposing and what was your response?

He didn't elaborate any plan to me. In fact, I rather asked him how he and his people would go and resume their places in the transitional government. And we had a rather lengthy discussion.

This morning I have met the prime minister, Seydou Diarra, and he too has given me his perceptions. And then, as you've seen yourself, Soro joined us - that's me and the prime minister. And I believe that, with time - and when I say time, I don't mean in the long term, but in the reasonably short-term, we might make a breakthrough and headway for all sides to regroup. But we need a lot of goodwill, both within Cote d'Ivoire and Ecowas and also in the larger international community to support the process.

This is one year later and, apart from the peace talks outside Paris in January and the Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement, which both sides claim is being violated, nothing much seems to have moved and there is total deadlock in the Cote d'Ivoire peace process.

A lot has moved. I think we have to appreciate that, since the truce was agreed. There hasn't been a reversion to hot war. So that's a lot. But I would still entreat everybody concerned to allow a bit more time for the process to resolve itself.

But what are the main stumbling blocks?

I can't say what it is, other than perhaps the personalities involved.

That sounds like a diplomatic answer. Are you saying that President Gbagbo simply doesn't get on with the former rebels?

No, no, no, no. I don't want to mention any names. And it might well be the reverse of the situation too. So, don't put words in my mouth. I'm saying we are appealing to all sides, in the interests of their country and also for normalcy, to get more accommodating with each other.

As the current Ecowas chairman, aren't you beginning to get frustrated with the Ivorian crisis and, of course, the effect it could have on the region, because of course there are now young, battle-hardened and armed veterans of the Sierra Leone and Liberian wars roaming around the region?

Would you propose the alternative? Are you suggesting I should be fed up, throw my hands up in the air and allow a reversion, a relapse into the chaos that was experienced about a year ago? Is that what you are suggesting?

Not at all, but people are asking why can't President Kufuor and Ecowas whip the Ivorians into line?

If that's not the suggestion, then I would say, come along with me in allowing for a bit more patience.

President Kufuor, in your heart of hearts, when you look deep down into your soul, do you really feel that there is a way of resolving the Cote d'Ivoire crisis and keeping the West African region stable because, of course, you are all neighbours and that must be a major concern?

I believe so, I believe so and I believe the Marcoussis agreement gave a fair chance for success. The points of conflict have been listed and I believe the transitional government should be able to lead the country into resolving them successfully. When that is done and they say the government manages to work its way through to 2005, when the elections are expected, the country may have a fair chance of reuniting itself and governing itself peacefully.

What about the role of President Laurent Gbagbo? There are many observers and opponents who say he is too stubborn and he doesn't want to give up power and that, although it is meant to be a power-sharing national reconciliation government in Cote d'Ivoire, it hasn't proved to be and that President Gbagbo is the problem. The New Forces said last week that President Gbagbo must go if peace is to return to Cote d'Ivoire.

Marcoussis did not prescribe that. Marcoussis recognised all the - is it factions? - within Cote d'Ivoire, including President Gbagbo. And I believe the prime minister and many other members of the transitional government agreed to this. So the solution is not trying to short circuit Marcoussis by ousting the president before peace will be achieved.

The solution lies in everybody being accommodating, both the president and all the other parties and the New Forces. Everybody should be accommodating to work the transition, so that at the end of the transition in 2005, the people - and I stress the people - of la Cote d'Ivoire as a whole, will have the right to pick their regular government through the ballot box.

When that happens, if it happens to be President Gbagbo winning or some other group, then everyone will be enjoined to live within the constitution and laws of the country normally.

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the former African Union chairman, on a state visit to France, was reported as saying that he felt that everyone who was party to the Marcoussis peace deal should meet again. He was also reported as saying that some of the fundamental issues that ignited this conflict - identity and land ownership in Cote d'Ivoire - must be dealt with.

I believe that is the same thing everybody is talking about and the same people - I mean within Cote d'Ivoire - that are meeting all over. They are the same people meeting and talking with the Ecowas leadership. So I believe this is exactly what is happening so far, unless you are suggesting a dramatisation of the meeting. But I believe that is not the right approach right now.

Does Ecowas really have a handle on this crisis in Cote d'Ivoire?

Ecowas has done very well in the circumstances and is managing, at least, to maintain whatever peace there is in the country now. It is also giving access to all sides and getting them to work towards a common objective of restoring peace.

But it's a very fragile peace that could surely break down at any time.

It's the best we can do in the circumstances and perhaps the best the country can get in the circumstances right now.

President Kufuor the recent Ecowas heads of state mini-summit in Accra appealed to the United Nations' Security Council to convert the regional peacekeeping mission into a UN operation in Cote d'Ivoire. I believe you are sending envoys to New York. What do you think the reply will be? And why do you think it should no longer be a West African peacekeeping effort anymore, but an international one?

There are many factors why it should be a UN peacekeeping force that should be managing the situation in la Cote d'Ivoire. I'm sure you know that that country is important, at least in the UEMOA (Union Economique et Monetaire ouest africaine) area. Cote d'Ivoire is so central, controlling over 60 percent of GDP of all the francophone countries of the sub region.

If the chaos should be allowed to continue, the repercussions - not only in Cote d'Ivoire, but in all the neighbouring countries - cannot be imagined. So, we have to do everything we can to shore it up.

Ecowas by itself has done quite a bit. But we must admit it's rather constrained by resources. And, given the wider repercussions that I have spoken about should the chaos continue in the sub-region, it becomes a situation of grave concern reaching out beyond the sub-region. This is why the UN must be here.

The sub-region will continue to make its input into this international force that will come. Even France would, I'm sure, continue to be part of the UN arrangement. So it's not an abdication of responsibility by Ecowas; rather, it's the reality of the situation.

The sub-region has barely gotten out of the situation in Liberia, which is next door to la Cote d'Ivoire, and this we have managed to do by enlisting the UN. The UN peacekeeping force is in Liberia next door. Then, when you look at Sierra Leone - also within the sub region - the UN presence is also there. So extending to la Cote d'Ivoire is really nothing strange or new. We want the UN to take this further step to consolidate the peace for the entire sub-region.

How confident are you that the UN Security Council will say yes to your appeal?

I am reasonably confident, knowing that the Security Council is made up of really realistic and practical membership. Otherwise the good work that it has done so far in the sister states of Sierra Leone and Liberia may all be undermined. And I'm sure the Security Council wouldn't want this to happen.

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