March 21, 2007 | World Defense Review

Good News from Cote d’Ivoire

It often seems that the news media, both traditional and new, operate under a journalistic version of Gresham's Law whereby bad news trumps good news.

This certainly appears to be the case with news from the African continent which – when it is covered at all in Western media – comes across as an endless cycle of material poverty and disease, resource competition, environmental degradation, civil conflict, religious fanaticism, and, in recent years, Islamist terrorism.

Consequently, while this column has and will continue to chronicle the poor governance and rising extremism which, alongside increasing geostrategic interests, make constant attention to developments in Sub-Saharan Africa de rigueur for policymakers in the United States, it is nonetheless refreshing to be able to at least occasionally report signs of progress, especially when these receive little if any of the notice they deserve.

One such case is the recent peace agreement signed in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on March 4, 2007, by President Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d'Ivoire and Guillaume Soro, Secretary-General of the “Forces Nouvelles” (FN) rebels who seized control of the northern part of the country followed a failed coup attempt nearly five years ago.

In a column last year, I have already argued that America's interests as well as her principles demand that the U.S. be more actively engaged in this “forgotten corner” of the globe, especially – as I documented in another column – the de facto abdication of leadership to the United Nations bureaucracy and the neocolonial ambitions of France, the former colonial ruler, have benefited neither Africans nor Americans. (America's favorite bête noire, France's lame duck president, Jacques Chirac, actually owns two large and profitable plantations in the country, a fact that no doubt had some influence on the contours of his policies towards the African nation.)

While peace accords in African civil conflicts have a notoriously short shelf life, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the Ouagadougou accord – and, should it hold, to derive some lessons from this experience applicable to other African conflicts.

First, the peace agreement came out of direct negotiations between the two principal forces in the conflict, the government of the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, led by President Gbagbo, which controls the southern part of the country, and the FN rebels which, protected behind the ill-named “zone of confidence” carved across the middle of the country by the United Nations Operations in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI) and the independent French military intervention, the “Force Licorne,” control the northern regions. Thus, unlike the long list of stillborn peace initiatives – Linas-Marcoussis, Accra I, Accra II, Accra III, Pretoria I, and Pretoria II, to name just the six major ones – and the batch of UN Security Council resolutions, the Ouagadougou accord was not an outside imposition on the parties.

In January, President Gbagbo requested that President Blaise Compaoré, the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), use his good offices to facilitate direct negotiations between the government and the rebels. As President Gbagbo noted in his March 9 address to the Ivorian nation, “conflicts in Africa can only be resolved through solutions found and proposed by Africans themselves.”

Second, the way forward was not found in the usual set piece international conferences which are little better than choreographed media circuses with little substance once the global luminaries who parachute in leave for the next stop on their itinerary. Instead the Ouagadougou accord came together out of painfully lengthy discussions in the Burkinabè capital between the representatives of the Ivorian government, led by President Gbagbo's special assistant, Désiré Tagro, and the FN delegation led by Soro's deputy, Louis-André Dacoury-Tabley. Hence, neither side can subsequently claim that outsiders imposed a deal upon them. As FN leader Soro underlined in an address on March 13 from the rebel capital of Bouaké, the direct dialogue “diminished the distrust of the Forces Nouvelles and allowed them to progressively engage in discussions…with all the time necessary.”

Third, unlike peace deals where, in order to get signatures on paper – the perennial triumph of process over substance! – mediators have purposely avoided tackling touchy subjects, the Ouagadougou accord went into considerable detail on the issues that, once the failed putsch had been turned into a full-fledged civil conflict, had become the most divisive: national identity (the FN claims to represent northerners who allege systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement, although the government argues that many of them are not legally Ivorian at all), the composition of the military (many of the original rebels in 2002 were soldiers whose units were about to be demobilized, while many FN commanders have been self-promoted in the ranks as the conflict evolved), political power sharing (other than President Gbagbo, elected by a plurality in contested elections in 2000, the composition of the government has been repeatedly reshuffled and manipulated, sometimes by troubling international diktat, these last few years), and the holding of elections (now two years overdue). The Ouagadougou agreement, as FN leader Soro notes is “a good political compromise which neither anoints a winner nor designates a loser.” It even has annexed to it a detailed timetable for implementing the terms of the deal.

Fourth, the Ouagadougou accord is forward looking. While promising an amnesty for crimes relating to national security during the conflict – and, commendably, excluding war crimes and crimes against humanity from the amnesty – the agreement points to way towards future progress with unambiguous benchmarks.

Last week an integrated command center, which according to the terms of the deal is “to unify the forces of the combatants” in view of “setting up a new defense and security forces committed to the values of integrity and republican morality,” was set up on schedule with accord's annexed timetable. Over the next two weeks, the institutional framework for monitoring progress which will include not only include the two principal forces, but also civilian leaders like Alassane Dramane Ouattara, who was excluded from the 2000 presidential ballot, and former president Henri Konan Bedié.

By April, a new unity government will be sworn in with Soro taking the place of Charles Konan Banny, the UN-installed prime minister. After that, the international community is invited to quit the “zone of confidence,” to permit the reunification of the country as public administration, including the registration of citizens, gets underway again. Simultaneously, combatants will be demobilized, disarmed, and reintegrated. The idea process will culminate with national elections, organized by Ivorians themselves, later this year.

Is all this too good to be true? Perhaps. I have been around Africa enough to take a skeptical view of most promises. On the other hand, during a visit to Abidjan in January, I had the opportunity to sit down with the leadership of the National Institute of Statistics (INS), the body which has been charged with carrying out the citizen identification and voter registration exercises on behalf of the relevant authorities.

On a purely technical level, INS is better prepared than almost any other analogous African body. The “direct data capture” units used are, in fact, more sophisticated (and secure) than the voter registration processes of most county clerks in the U.S. The question, therefore, is not one of technical feasibility, but rather one of political will.

I am encouraged that President Gbagbo reiterated in his national address the sentiments which he expressed as a hope at the time in a private meeting with me and two colleagues in January: “The international community has always had the initiative in the negotiations and [failed] peace agreements in Côte d'Ivoire. Now the discussions were initiated and undertaken by Ivorians themselves…We must take ownership of this agreement and make it successful, because any failure in implementation would be catastrophic since no other opportunity of negotiations will be offered to us. All other ways and means of recourse have been exhausted.”

After my January 5 meeting with President Gbagbo – which followed a separate meeting with Prime Minister Banny the day before – I spoke at a press conference. In light of the hopeful developments, my remarks, originally given in French, are perhaps even truer today than they were just two short months ago:

I am an academic whose studies focus heavily on Africa, her politics, her conflicts, and, above all, her hopes. As an involved American citizen, I have the humble task of occasionally addressing my country's strategic interests; however, as a moral human being, I also have the duty to ensure that those interests conform to her ideals and those of humanity.

 

Both callings meet in the present situation in Côte d'Ivoire. It is, quite frankly, in my nation's interests to seek a return to peace and stability in this beautiful country, in this increasingly significant region. However, true peace and stability can only come through a process that permits the Ivorian people to democratically express their will in free, fair, transparent, and credible elections, which conform not only to the same standards now expected everywhere around the world by free peoples, but also the general norms of historical legal precedent and to the particular requirements of the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire.

I am gratified to be reassured by the commitment of everyone I have spoken with to such a process. I believe it is in not only in the interests of the Ivorian people, but also that of the international community and, in my case, especially the United States, that the process be successfully carried out to bring, in the shortest possible time, an electoral exercise in a democratic and sovereign Côte d'Ivoire, which will once again be as it has been, a beacon for Africa and the developing world.

The Ivorian leadership and people have themselves come to the realization that, in Guillaume Soro's words, “continuing the war does nothing but augment the number of victims” while holding credible elections would be, in President Gbagbo's words, “the victory of the whole Ivorian people.” In a neighborhood where Guinea is still dancing at the precipice (and threatening the hard-won peace of Sierra Leone and Liberia) and Nigeria seems bent on hurtling itself into the abyss (thus taking with it not just the region, but the global energy markets), the U.S. and its international partners owe it to themselves as well as to Ivorians to ensure that the hope engendered by Ouagadougou accord for Côte d'Ivoire and for Africa does not slip away.

 

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.