Ivory Coast tests African Union

Fighting broke out Sunday around the northern city of Bouaké as cease-fire talks faltered.

Late Saturday afternoon, eight foreign and defense ministers from six West African countries sat slumped in the red canvas seats of a roaring French C-160 cargo plane, sweat dripping down their faces, frustration in their eyes.

They were returning from an attempt to get a cease-fire agreement in the capital Yamoussoukro between the government and rebels who have taken control of much of the country's north.

For days, these ministers and representatives of the 15-nation Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS) have been trying desperately to get the two sides to sit down and discuss their differences. The rebels, who attempted a coup on Sept. 19, say that they have been discriminated against and excluded from the political process.

But by late Sunday, prospects for a cease-fire appeared dim as fighting broke out around the contested city of Bouaké.

For West African states, resolving the conflict in the Ivory Coast, long one of the region's most stable and prosperous countries, is a crucial test of the African Union (AU), the pan-African body launched earlier this year to maintain peace and security on the continent. Among the mandates of the AU is to intervene in conflicts that threaten to destabilize surrounding countries. The AU draws on established regional bodies, such as ECOWAS.

But as fighting began to escalate Sunday, some observers say this is another case of too little intervention, too late.

"[ECOWAS has] been dealing with this in a very reactive manner," says Hussein Solomon, head of the peace and security program at the Africa Institute in South Africa. "The reasons why this has taken place – the exclusion of the Muslim population, the unhappiness of some of the soldiers, and poor military-civilian relations – have been around for years."

For nearly 40 years, the Ivory Coast was a bastion of stability in a region ruled by dictators and wracked by civil war. Driven by cocoa and coffee exports, the economy is the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa and the second largest in the region behind Nigeria. An estimated 5 million refugees from countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, and economic migrants from Burkina Faso and Mali, make their home here.

But ethnic and religious tensions that have been simmering for at least a decade exploded last month when disgruntled soldiers mutinied and began taking control of cities in the largely Muslim north.

Until Sunday, the presence of French troops, who had been brought in to evacuate Westerners trapped in several northern cities, had maintained a tenuous cease-fire.

West African countries are desperate for a chance to resolve the conflict before a full-scale civil war erupts, and move this country from the region's short list of success stories to its already long list of desperate failures.

"This country is bordered by five others and instability here will spread," says Ghana's Minister of Defense, Kwame Addo-Kufour, worried about his own country to the east. One million Ghanians are said to live here, and the two countries have strong trade ties. "So far, it's one of the few success stories on the [West African] Coast, so for once, we're trying to prevent a conflict before it actually takes off."

Negotiators say that new commitments to the AU and the New Economic Plan for African Development (NEPAD), an economic recovery plan for Africa that attempts to attract Western economic investment by maintaining greater peace and stability, have changed the way African states view their relationship with each other.

"There is definitely a growing importance of the necessity of subregional organizations such as ECOWAS involving themselves in the affairs of a country which previously have been considered purely internal matters and which governments would have guarded jealously," says Mohammed Ibn Chambas, director-general of ECOWAS and the chief negotiator here. "If the old trend of sweeping everything under the carpet is allowed to continue, crises will continue to break out."

For the first time in its 27-year history, ECOWAS is stepping into a domestic conflict as a negotiating body rather than a military force. Three times in the past 15 years, the body has intervened in the affairs of member states, sending peacekeeping troops to assist in some of the region's worst military conflicts. But the organization's military efforts have had questionable success.

In Liberia, ECOWAS troops failed to keep the armies of Charles Taylor, now the country's president and a member of ECOWAS, at bay. In Sierra Leone, the United Nations eventually had to come to help peacekeeping efforts.

The organization has also been accused of taking sides in conflicts, turning peacekeeping missions into military campaigns to protect crumbling regimes. Their troops have been accused of committing crimes against humanity, an accusation ECOWAS does not deny.

Although there has been talk here about sending in peacekeeping troops, negotiators had hoped early intervention would prevent the crisis from escalating to all-out war. The Ivorian government says that they do not want troops from neighboring countries.

But Mr. Solomon says that the Ivory Coast situation is another missed opportunity. Signs of deterioration should be been recognized years ago. Xenophobia and ethnic tension have been on the rise for a decade and the country's presidential elections, in 2000, were tainted by the exclusion of some candidates who where judged to be foreigners.

Mr. Chambas admits that better early-warning mechanisms may have been able to anticipate the current crisis and that the organization is taking steps toward improving its monitoring ability. Four West African early-warning centers have already been established in hotspots, and two more are planned.

In the meantime, however, West African negotiators are involved in a last ditch effort to broker peace.

"We'll keep at it until this is resolved," said one minister, as he walked of the plane after a long day of negotiations. "The alternative is unthinkable."

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