Next door, lessons for Liberia

Western troops and African peacekeepers teamed up to end the Ivory Coast civil war.

As the sky darkens and the sticky West African night settles in, zou glu - urban music - pounds from the speakers and customers begin trickling in. Jean-Baptiste Ahoure, the owner of this outdoor bar and restaurant, looks down at his gold watch and smiles. It will be a good night.

"People want to play, to come out," he says. "Because for so long, during the war, they had nowhere to go."

Just a few months ago, Ivory Coast looked as neighboring Liberia does today - a country split by warring factions, waiting for help from the outside world. In this city once known as the "Paris of Africa," months of curfews nearly bankrupted Abidjan businesses like Mr. Ahoure's.

Today, the country is firmly on the path to peace. A combination of international and regional military commitment and pressure for a negotiated settlement brought a rapid end to the standoff. It's a lesson that the United States and West African peacekeepers can look to as they turn their attention to neighboring Liberia, mired in nearly 15 years of on-again, off-again violence.

To be sure, all conflicts are different. Liberia's civil strife is far more entrenched than what emerged in Ivory Coast last year. Tuesday, government troops launched a counterattack against the port city of Buchanan, which rebels had taken the day before. A separate smaller rebel faction opened up a second front in the interior earlier in the week.

West African peacekeepers were supposed to head to Liberia Wednesday, but the latest unrest casts doubt on when their mission will begin. US troops, who are due to arrive off the coast by the end of the week, are expected to play only a supporting role.

Meanwhile, instead of festering like Liberia, life in Ivory Coast has mostly returned to normal. A new interim government has been installed and disarmament is under way.

"This is a good example for the African Union about how we should respond to crisis," says Nestor Djido, a spokesman for the West African force here, which operates under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the same organization that is preparing to send peacekeepers to Liberia. "For the first time, the international community and Africans have worked together effectively in the resolution of a conflict. We know Africa, but need their support."

Ivory Coast's short-lived civil war began last September, when dissatisfied soldiers mutinied. After a few hours of fierce fighting here in the commercial capital, the rebels regrouped in the northern city of Bouake, and over the next few weeks consolidated control over most of the north and west. Within a month, the country was effectively partitioned.

The French, formerly Ivory Coast's colonial power, moved quickly to evacuate Westerners from rebel-held areas, but gradually expanded their role into peacekeeping. Essentially, they held the line between rebel and government forces, preventing either from advancing, and allowing West African negotiators to work on political settlement.

The fact that various Liberian rebel factions and the government have been battling next door for a decade and a half was not lost on the French.

"The example of Liberia was a good one for the French in Ivory Coast, because it showed that if the French troops had not intervened so quickly, we might have had long-term problems like Liberia," says Lt. Col. Jerôme Sallé, a spokesman for the French forces here. "The rapid response stopped the fighting and kept the status quo, allowing negotiations to take place."

West African peacekeepers from five nations followed the French after the cease-fire in October 2002, but their deployment was made possible only by massive support by the international community. French troops helped transport, uniform, and feed them, and now pay each of the 1,300 West African peacekeepers 26 € ($30) per day.

The US provided vehicles, which now patrol Abidjan and a "zone of confidence" through the center of the country that still keeps rebels and government troops apart.

The French still have 4,000 soldiers here and say they will stay on until peace is firmly cemented. West African forces are slowly taking over more responsibility and will lead the disarmament process.

Although both sides in the conflict still complain about French intervention, each saying that they would have won without their interference, even the most radical factions here are glad for the rapid resolution. And regular Ivorians are just happy that more bloodshed was averted.

There are still a number of potential stumbling blocks, including who will control two disputed ministries - defense and security - as well as an upcoming vote on amnesty for the warring parties. But since July 4, when rebel and government Army leaders together presented the president with a Kalashnikov rifle, the war has been considered over. The next battles here will be clashes of words, not arms.

"It's a reality," says Daniel Kossomina Ouattara, an official with the New Force, the name for Ivory Coast's three united rebel groups. "Peace is here."

Back at the outdoor restaurant, the white plastic chairs are filling up fast. Ahoure looks around, a green fluorescent light glinting on his face, and shakes his head.

"I don't understand why people fight for power," he says. "Africa should fight for development, to be like Europe and America. We all just want peace."

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