Push to limit Ivory Coast conflict

South Africa's Thabo Mbeki has taken a lead role in peace negotiations, which are set to begin today.

To the casual observer, this week's unrest in Ivory Coast seems like a prelude to another in a blur of African wars.

Troubled West Africa, home to brittle countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, has been embroiled in conflict for much of the past decade. Fighting in Ivory Coast, which is about the size of New Mexico, could suck its neighbors into a conflagration akin to the 1998-2003 "world war" in Congo, which involved 6 nations and claimed 3 million lives.

As well, Ivory Coast, one of Africa's 10 biggest economies and the world's largest exporter of cocoa, is an economic anchor in the region. Fighting there could have a devastating financial ripple effect in the surrounding countries.

So many African and global players are desperate to avoid fresh fighting, and the early signs are that they might succeed.

But it will be a major challenge. Even just one week of unrest in Ivory Coast sparked the flight of hundreds of French and other expatriates. It also sent more than 5,000 Ivorian refugees scurrying to nearby Liberia and Ghana and temporarily shut down cocoa exports. Because Ivory Coast produces about 40 percent of the world's cocoa, global prices jumped to near-record highs.

In response, the continent's highest-profile statesman, South African President Thabo Mbeki, jetted to Ivory Coast Tuesday to push for peace talks, which are set for today in South Africa. The United Nations Security Council has considered sanctions. These and other pressures could help avert war.

"There's a very good basis for some sort of resolution to this," says Richard Cornwell, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

Anti-French sentiment runs deep

It all began last weekend when Ivorian government planes crossed the internationally monitored "confidence zone" that has divided the nation into northern and southern halves since the signing of a 2002 peace accord. The planes bombed rebel positions and a military outpost belonging to former colonial power, France. The attack killed nine Frenchmen and one American.

On French President Jacques Chirac's orders, French planes retaliated, destroying virtually all of Ivory Coast's modest air force. That stoked long-simmering anti-French sentiments in the main city, Abidjan. Riots broke out. French expatriates were attacked, as were whites of other nationalities. Soon France, Britain, the US, Canada, Spain, and other nations were scrambling to get their nationals out.

By yesterday, Abidjan's streets were returning to normal - with a few shops opening and taxis running. And one thing was clear: France is no longer seen as an impartial broker in the conflict between rebels and the government, which began after a failed 2002 coup. France arranged the 2002 peace deal, but Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters now see it as favoring rebels. Anti-French sentiment runs strong.

At the university hospital in Abidjan's upmarket Cocody district, bandages on student Yeo Yaya's wrist and arm cover what he says are bullet wounds from when French soldiers fired on a crowd of thousands of protesters this week. "[Is] Ivory Coast a French colony?" he says. "We ask: What do they want?"

Mr. Yaya's call for the French to withdraw to their bases is echoed by other militant loyalist protesters, some of whom accuse Paris of attempting to stage a coup by taking control of Abidjan's airport and stationing tanks and troops near Mr. Gbagbo's house.

But many others, particularly foreigners and those from the rebel-held north, are desperate for France's military to stay - to prevent what they say could be attacks and reprisals by Gbagbo loyalists.

Many immigrants and residents of the largely Muslim north have long claimed they are discriminated against socially and economically by the government in the powerful Christian south. They see Gbagbo's militant supporters as violent xenophobes given license to terrorize by senior politicians and a vitriolic state TV station.

The French "can't move, because there will be a catastrophe," says Auguste, a security guard in Abidjan who's from neighboring Burkina Faso.

The wariness of France makes Mr. Mbeki's intervention key, analysts say. His push for peace talks comes amid a growing continental quest for "African solutions to African problems."

And Mbeki appears ready to apply serious pressure. For one thing, he invited key Ivory Coast opposition leaders to the talks in South Africa. By doing so, says Mr. Cornwell, he appears to be sending a clear signal from African leaders to Gbagbo: "We wouldn't mind having you replaced," just as Liberian despot Charles Taylor was deposed last year. Mbeki could help forge a fraternity of opposition figures into a "collegial presidency" to replace Gbagbo, Cornwell says.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council may pass a resolution as early as Monday that would give Gbagbo and rebels until Dec. 10 to comply with previous peace deals, which include a power-sharing agreement - or face sanctions. Some 6,000 UN peacekeepers - and 4,000 French troops - are already in the country.

Peace deal No. 4

Yet getting to actual peace may be far harder than simply averting war. So far, three peace accords have been ignored by both sides.

Many elite interests are prospering amid the country's half-war, half-peace limbo. "The political impasse is exceptionally lucrative for almost everyone except ordinary citizens," says a July report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels. ICG fingers the president's wife - who's a member of parliament - as a key player in a "shadow government" that's involved in an "Enron-type structure" of interlocking firms that skim profits from cocoa production. In April, a French-Canadian journalist probing this corruption disappeared.

Even mid-level soldiers benefit, especially by setting up checkpoints, ostensibly because of the tenuous security situation. The report's authors found 16 roadblocks along a road out of Abidjan. At each one, soldiers demanded money - a total of $90 in bribes for "a relatively short ride" on one of the country's main roads.

Corruption takes its toll on average Ivorians. Before the 2002 coup, 38 percent lived below the poverty line, according to the UN. Now 44 percent do.

"Other than ordinary citizens," the report asks, "who would gain from peace and security" in Ivory Coast?

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