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Interview: Kofi Annan says Ivory Coast mediators could draw on Kenya's example

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who led Kenya's post-election mediation, says lessons learned in 2008 could help resolve the current Ivory Coast standoff.

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This lack of doubt should have made the transition easier, Mr. Annan says, but the fact that Ivory Coast recently emerged from civil war, and because the two dominant parties in this election had been on opposite sides of that civil war, the current impasse has become almost insurmountable. President Gbagbo “doesn’t want to leave,” says Annan, so “you are left with a situation of how you negotiate the departure of Gbagbo. This is where we are."

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As of press time, there has been very little information disclosed from the closed-door meetings of the panel of four African heads of state from South Africa, Mauritania, Tanzania, and Chad (the fifth panel member, from Burkina Faso, stayed away because of threats to his life) other than an suggestion that the two sides form a temporary power-sharing government. Ouattara’s representatives, including designated Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, have rejected this proposal outright.

In the meantime, street violence between activists from both sides has escalated to full-scale fighting between Gbagbo's loyal Army contingents and Ouattara's supportive Forces Nouvelles, a northern rebel group. Their fighting this week was the first breach in the country’s six-year ceasefire. Hundreds of activists have been killed in the past few months, and UN sources have told reporters that perhaps 15 people have been killed this week alone.

Annan offers advice for mediation

In short, it's not an encouraging environment for talks – yet there are things that mediators can do to improve a situation, to reduce the levels of violence, and to provide incentives for the two sides to talk, says Annan.

He says the first step is to establish one, and only one, mediation process. “In these situations, you need one mediation process; you can’t have several mediation teams,” says Annan. “If you have several initiatives, the participants will forum-shop until they get what they want out of the mediation.”

The second step is to demonstrate forward momentum in the talks, and thus put the hard-liners on the backfoot. “What we observed in Kenya is that we needed to get the two leaders together, they had to be seen shaking hands in public and committing themselves to peaceful settlement of the conflict,” says Annan. “We did that in the first 48 hours, which reduced the political temperature and violence and gave us the time and space to negotiate."

There may be setbacks and periodic outbreaks of violence, as occurred in Kenya, when the violence spread to towns like Naivasha that had once been peaceful, but had become warzones. But even these setbacks can actually improve the mediation process, forcing the two sides to focus their efforts on larger issues, rather than bickering over small ones to stall for time.

“The level of brutality and displacement of people shocked every Kenyan,” says Annan. “And this, ironically, helped pull them back from the brink. Against this horrific background and our persistence in the mediation process, a settlement was achieved in 41 days.”

“The question is why can’t that happen in Cote D’Ivoire?” Annan adds. “They’ve gone through civil war in the past 10 years, and serious efforts at healing and reconciliation have not taken place. The current crisis has deepened those divisions. The next leader will have to work hard to pull the country together.”

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