Why negotiations often fail in Western Africa

Two new rebel groups have emerged in Ivory Coast as French troops evacuate foreigners.

As if reaching a negotiated settlement in Ivory Coast weren't already hard enough, it just got harder.

Within the past four days, two new rebel groups have emerged in addition to the one that has held the northern part of the country since a failed coup on Sept. 19. Over the weekend, French troops battled rebels in the west and evacuated scores of foreigners. And thousands of migrants who had come to Ivory Coast from war-ravaged Liberia are returning home, threatening a humanitarian crisis there.

The renewed fighting has effectively shattered negotiations in Lomé, Togo, between leaders of the original rebel group - the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI) - and government negotiators. The MPCI, made up of Muslims from the country's north, has been seeking greater political representation.

Broken negotiations are familiar to West African conflicts. Everything from failure to include the right people in negotiations to the demonization of rebel groups can contribute to their collapse. And while each conflict has its own cultural and political context, negotiators from past crises point to the need for patience and greater inclusiveness to make the peace process work.

When rebels do rise up, negotiations that are most transformative are those that go beyond high-level government representatives and rebels and reach out to all segments of the population, says John Paul Lederach, a professor in the conflict transformation program at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Va. He says that negotiations have failed in countries such as Liberia, which has been in a civil war since the mid-1990s, when armed groups rise up and become de facto spokespersons for the society.

"What is needed is a much broader framework that includes armed groups but explicitly engages a wider range of participation," says Mr. Lederach. "Where that happens, the civil society is stronger and the manipulation of either government or armed groups is provided some accountability and control."

Emmanuel Habuka Bombande, the program director at the West African Network for Peacebuilding, agrees. He says that negotiations often fail to include people who are most affected, such as women. He adds that because of this, the peace accords that are reached tend to meet only the limited concerns of the rebel groups, not citizens as a whole.

Experts say that successful resolutions shouldn't be hurried. In Ghana, ethnic infighting that broke out in the mid-1990s was resolved peacefully through patience.

"In Ghana, mediation and peacebuilding took some time," says Mr. Bombande. "We must be prepared not to seek short-term solution in a rush. Attention should be paid to strengthening national structure that can support durable peace."

Bombande says that in Ghana, special emphasis has been given to the development of national institutions, such as respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the growth of a dynamic civil society. Strong national institutions and an active civil society are able to contain problems before they get out of control, he says.

"In countries such as Ivory Coast, this [strengthening of institutions] has been lacking," says Bombande. Patronage under former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, he says, "did not allow the development or growth of national institutions nor objective, non-partisan civil-society groups."

Another overlooked dimension in West African conflicts is the demonization of rebel groups by governments and the population.

"Often, rebel groups are portrayed as brutal, disrespectful of law and order, or evil. These stereotypes block empathy and make it difficult to negotiate," says Michael Wessels, professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., who is a specialist in psychological dynamics of international conflicts. "It is often the failure to empathize that leads government representatives to see rebel demands as highly inappropriate."

He says history has provided numerous cases, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, in which rebels see themselves in a liberation struggle and view death as preferable to acceptance of government domination and oppression. "Empathy is crucial for getting beyond seeing the problem only in one's own terms."

One of the two new rebel groups, the Movement for Justice and Peace, from the Yacouba tribe, the same tribe as their leader former Robert Guei, say that they are out to avenge the death of Mr. Guei, who was killed at the hands of troops loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr. Gbagbo will meet with the president of neighboring Burkina Faso tomorrow in Mali to continue to look for diplomatic resolutions.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.