South Africa's now-neutral stance on Ivory Coast infuriates president-elect's camp

South African President Jacob Zuma is set to go to Ivory Coast this weekend in a bid to negotiate a powersharing agreement that will pull the country back from the brink of another civil war.

By , Staff Writer , Correspondent

South Africa announced today that President Jacob Zuma will leave this weekend to help negotiate an end to the political crisis that has threatened for weeks to pull the West African nation of Ivory Coast back to civil war.

South Africa also announced that it is now neutral in the Ivory Coast dispute – a remarkable pullback from its initial congratulation of Ivorian President-elect Alassane Ouattara’s Nov. 28 runoff victory, which has yet to be recognized by renegade incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo.

That shift has infuriated Mr. Outtara's internationally recognized administration, which has had to operate from a hotel guarded by United Nations peacekeepers while Mr. Gbagbo clings to power in the presidential palace.

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Mr. Zuma says that he has been invited by both sides to mediate as part of a high-level African Union team, but Ouattara’s appointed prime minister, Guillaume Soro, said today that the South African mediation process is neither welcome nor necessary.

“In Egypt, was there an African Union? Was there a panel of five heads of state?” Mr. Soro said at a press conference in Dakar, Senegal. “The Egyptians chased [former President Hosni Mubarak's regime] out. Was [the Economic Community of West African States] in Tunisia? And yet [former Tunisian President Ben Ali] was chased out. Is Gbagbo more powerful than Ben Ali or Mubarak?”

“People in [Ivory Coast] must organize themselves and take their destiny into their own hands to chase Gbagbo from power,” Mr. Soro added, noting that large numbers of Gbagbo’s own forces had voted for Ouattara, and could be counted on to join up with a citizen protest and with the northern “Forces Nouvelles” rebel group from the north, who backed Ouattara in the elections.

African pragmatism?

While human rights groups are quietly voicing concern about South Africa’s new attempt at mediation – arguing that any attempt to include Gbagbo in a new government of national unity would effectively reward him for his violent rejection of the election results, and could set a precedent – some experts say that it is simply a return of the tried-and-true African policy of pragmatism in dealing with power struggles.

“I don't see this as a U-turn” by South Africa, says Anne Fruhauf, an Africa analyst for the Eurasia Group. “They've been leaving the door open for Gbagbo to negotiate. Neutrality is the centerpiece of their approach. The question is how far the region is willing to go to establish democracy and so far stability has been the key concern.”

South Africa's International Relations Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane said that South Africa had the “prerogative” to change its mind. “I don't know if, when they are asking us to find a way forward, we should be stagnating and taking them backward," she said.

A step back?

If Gbagbo and Ouattara do agree on a powersharing agreement, however, they will essentially be stepping backward into the same uneasy coalition government of national unity that they had formed in the leadup to the long-awaited Nov. 28 election.

That vote was intended to be the final step toward normalization, after a punishing 2002-2003 civil war split the country between the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. Just how another government of national unity will bring lasting peace to Ivory Coast – or justice to the victims of political violence in the aftermath of the vote – is unclear.

An estimated 200 of Ouattara’s supporters, along with some journalists, have disappeared in the post-election crisis and are thought to be dead. The Associated Press claims to have obtained evidence of mass killings, including 113 bodies at Abidjan’s main morgue, bodies that have not been released to families.

“The violence is absolutely continuing, and we get reports of ongoing violence every day,” says Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Dakar, who recently conducted a study of political killings in Abidjan. “We could safely say that there are scores of people in the morgues who have not been buried and who are victims of political violence, the vast majority of whom appear to have been killed by forces loyal to [Gbagbo].”

The growing death toll in Ivory Coast caused Jose Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Netherlands, to warn both sides against committing human rights violations.

"If they start to kill people, then it's a crime and we will pursue them," Mr. Moreno-Ocampo told France 24 news channel. "The reality is that some people in Ivory Coast are planning attacks and we know that. And I want to tell them clearly, if you do that ... you will be prosecuted. That's a clear message."

Numerous African leaders – including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and former South African President Thabo Mbeki – have attempted in the past few months to kickstart a negotiation process, exploring all options, including a possible powersharing agreement. All such efforts have failed.

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