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In the end, Cote d’Ivoire avoided hell; Kenya too can escape
By JILLO KADIDA
In this second part of our State of the Nation series, Saturday NATION correspondent Tony Eluemunor writes that Kenya can learn from the experiences of Cote d’Ivoire that small concessions made in mediated talks are as important as the big ones, and that it is possible to reverse the descent into political hell.
On February 1, 2008 the landmark Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan buzzed with political activity. A large crowd had gathered at the gardens, drummers were hard at work and a band was entertaining a group of party leaders, journalists and guests, including representatives of the US Republican and Democratic parties as well as Democratic presidential hopeful Barrack Obama’s personal assistant.
Preparations for Cote d’Ivoire’s presidential election in October had begun, and the country’s Republican Party was holding its national congress that day. If a single event could measure how far the country has come back from its descent into hell, it was that party congress.
The party’s standard bearer will in all probability be Mr Alassane Ouattara, the same man whose exclusion from past elections triggered the political crisis that consumed the nation for nearly a decade and led to civil war.
As a gesture of goodwill, the Republican Party invited leaders and representatives of rival parties to the opening ceremony. They sat together on the dais where Mr Ouattara, the party’s soon-to-be-nominated presidential candidate, later joined them.
Except for President Laurent Gbagbo, who sent a representative, leaders of all the other parties were present. Mr Ouattara’s main rival, Mr Henri Konan Bedie, who had banned him from contesting the 1995 election, was there and shook hands and exchanged the customary kisses with his political foe.
These truly remarkable acts of reconciliation only served to underscore the tragedy that these politicians could only muster the courage to reach out to one another after their country had nearly been destroyed by war. They could have spared their country a lot of pain.
At least 2,000 people were killed and some 1.2 million (about 6 per cent of the population) became internally displaced or sought refuge in neighbouring countries. About 800,000 became IDPs and the other 400,000 fled to neighbouring countries.
Between 500,000 and 700,000 children abandoned school, and many schools and medical facilities closed down (and the incidence of Aids rose) in part because of the departure of civil servants and the breakdown of the central administration in the areas controlled by rebels.
An estimated 20,000 people were made homeless in Abidjan as a result of the government’s destruction of shantytowns that had been built near military and “sensitive” establishments. This ill-considered action was intended to stop the infiltration of rebels from densely populated informal settlements into military areas.
As is often the case when a country is engulfed in war, the priorities of public spending shift from education, health and other social services to military, security and humanitarian operations.
Yet despite all this, statistics compiled by the Centre for Systematic Peace show that the civil war accounted for just 2,500 “directly related” deaths. Compared to other wars, the Ivorian conflict was relatively “small’’. In nearby and much smaller Guinea-Bissau, 6,000 people died in a 1998-99 coup and subsequent civil war.
So how did Cote d’Ivoire pull its chestnuts out of the fire, and what lessons can Kenya learn from this process? It was a long and slow one in which even a small step towards national reconciliation and healing helped.
France, with which Cote d’Ivoire has had a defence pact since independence, installed Mr Bedie as Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s successor upon his death in December 1993, thus avoiding for a while whatever problems there might have been between supporters of Mr Bedie and Mr Ouattara.
But when the time came for him to prove himself a statesman by organising a free election, Mr Bedie failed. He banned credible opponents, and their parties boycotted the election, depriving it of credibility and leaving Mr Bedie exposed to a military coup in 1999.
Military leader Robert Guei also lost the next opportunity to make peace when he, too, banned most leading politicians from contesting the 2000 presidential election. When Mr Gbagbo, whom he admitted into the race, roundly defeated him, Gen Guei still declared himself the winner but later did the sensible thing and fled to his home village when the masses rose against him in protest.
Gen Guei could have ordered his troops to shoot the demonstrators who were mainly armed with brooms — to sweep him out of power. But he did not, and Mr Gbagbo became president, averting a major crisis, although not for long.
Opposition leader Ouattara, who had been excluded from the election, denounced the outcome and called for a fresh poll. By October, violence had erupted between President Gbagbo’s mainly southern and Christian supporters and the northern Muslims who backed Mr Ouattara. Real trouble had begun.
In an act that could seem out of character, President Gbagbo set up a National Reconciliation Forum in October 2001. As the country remained in crisis, he reserved four ministerial slots for the opposition, the way President Kibaki is proposing to do in an attempt to appease the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which insists he stole the December vote.
But in November 2001, soldiers, mainly northerners who were unhappy with being demobilised because the exercise appeared to target the north, mutinied and within days Cote d’Ivoire was in the throes of a full rebellion. The rebel group named itself the Cote d’Ivoire Patriotic Movement and seized the northern part of the country.
However, within a month a ceasefire was in place even as new rebel groups emerged. Part of what made the swift peace agreement possible was that France and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), stepped in. The country rejected Nigeria’s offer to send its regional standby peacekeeping force and opted for one from other West African countries that excluded Nigeria. It got its wish as a Senegalese, Gen Fall, commanded it.
But since Nigeria was financing the operation, Abuja demanded that a Nigerian head the mission and appointed Ralph Uwechue, then President Olusegun Obasanjo’s ambassador to Conflict Resolution in Africa, to help to manage the crisis in that capacity.
January 2003 saw President Gbagbo accept a peace deal in talks near Paris that proposed a power-sharing arrangement. In March, this was modified to include in government nine members from the rebel side. Mr Seydou Diarra, a consensus prime minister unaffiliated with any of the contending forces, was tasked to reform the cabinet.
When this fragile peace ruptured at the end of the year and Nigeria could no longer shoulder the financial burden alone, it asked the United Nations to provide more funds and logistics.
However, the UN could contribute troops, weaponry and funds for only its own activities. Additional peacekeeping troops from Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries arrived, making it possible to create a buffer zone between the rebels and government troops. Once this was operational, the war was virtually over as neither side wanted to be on the outs with the international community.
Tensions heightened again in November 2004 when Ivorian Air Force planes attacked rebel positions, claiming that the rebels had failed to respect their disarmament deadline and gather at designated spots to hand in their weapons. Nine French soldiers were killed in the attack.
In retaliation, France wiped out the country’s modest air force — a bomber and four ordinary helicopters. Anti-French violence erupted in Abidjan as French troops went into the streets, saying they were protecting French citizens. Several Ivorian youths died in subsequent clashes.
Skirmishes continued until the government and the New Forces rebels signed a Burkina Faso-mediated power-sharing agreement in March 2007 that named rebel leader Guillaume Soro prime minister. But they were just that — skirmishes.
In April, both sides teamed up to symbolically dismantle the buffer zone, and the militias began to disarm. Not even the rocket fired last June at a plane carrying Mr Soro could derail the peace process. In December, government and rebel forces pulled back from their frontlines to reunite the once divided country.
Earlier this month, UN peacekeeping troops in Abidjan, part of an 8,000-strong force, could be seen lounging about in hotels waiting for the October election.
Campaigning is already under way, and a major hurdle to peaceful elections seems to have been overcome with an amendment to the constitution that does away with the need for a presidential candidate to have two Ivorian parents. In the end, Cote d’Ivoire was spared serious, sustained hostilities by the presence of a large peacekeeping force.
That President Gbagbo, just as Gen Guei before him, decided not to fight to the finish but to make concessions and that Mr Soro agreed to become prime minister and contest the coming election tells of individual sacrifice and the give-and-take spirit that ensured the crisis was contained.
But while similar in some respects, the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire is substantively different from that in Kenya where there has been no public split in the army and no rebellion. Rather, the present situation is more like the threat that faced Liberia when the result of its first post-war election was disputed as George Weah and his supporters claimed victory.
Backed by the US, Nigeria moved swiftly to avert a crisis in Liberia. President Olusegun Obasanjo called former football start George Weah to Abuja and spoke to him about the need to allow a respected economist — Ellen Sirleaf Johnson— to handle Liberia’s economy, allegedly refunding him the money he had spent in the campaigns, and advised him to bide his time as he was still young. Weah did not publicly dispute the outcome again.
Thus, the easiest way to end Kenya’s political crisis is for President Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga to commit themselves to a deal, a process that is currently going on. At critical moments in Cote d’Ivoire, President Gbagbo and his predecessor, Gen Guei, stopped and retraced their steps. President Gbagbo signed hundreds of accords, then broke almost all of them, but he never tired of returning to the peace parley. This helped greatly in checking the extent of the crisis, because the ongoing process always held hope.
As is evident in Cote d’Ivoire, the presence of international peacekeepers was critical. Kenya has not reached that point. Instead, in addition to the measures PNU and ODM have already agreed on, an international collage of jurists could be called in to form an electoral tribunal and try the cases arising from the elections.
The lesson from the Cote d’Ivoire situation is that in talks in Kenya, there must be no no-go areas. There were none in the Ivorian process, and positions were never totally rigid.
It was easy to rally the northern Muslims who had for decades suffered from unequal treatment by the central government. So even when their electricity and water supplies and postal services collapsed, they remained loyal to their champion, Mr Soro, because they saw him as leading them in the fight to re-establish their respect and rights as citizens.
The identity cards of many northerners, without which they couldn’t vote, were torn in a crackdown on “illegal aliens.” Today such abuse has stopped, and the IDs are being re-issued. Mr Ouattara became the symbol of the abuse and inequality northerners had endured for decades. Every time he was barred from running for president was equated to the abrogation of every northerner’s democratic rights. Now this, too, has been rectified.
Events in Cote d’Ivoire show that political crises in Africa can be managed, particularly if they are not left to fester for too long, and that a Somalia-like situation and the full-scale wars that Mozambique and Angola went through can be avoided.
However, hostility to international involvement in the crisis, the arrogance of power and unyielding positions could well plunge Kenya into a hell from which it might never recover.
Source: Daily Nation