Rebels controlling northern Ivory Coast since 2002 officially handed over to civilian administrators yesterday in a step aimed at restoring government authority across the world’s biggest cocoa producer.
The West African country was divided by a brief civil war in 2002-03 and is due to hold a long-delayed presidential election on Nov. 29, though many Ivorians suspect the vote could be postponed again as all sides have profited from the status quo.
Reuters says the rebel commanders of 10 northern zones handed over to local administrators appointed by President Laurent Gbagbo, who in 2007 reached a peace deal with the rebels that brought them into government in the former French colony.
“This completes the reunification of the territorial administration,” Sidiki Konate, spokesman of the New Forces rebels, told the handover ceremony in the central city of Bouake, the rebels’ stronghold.
Interior Minister Desire Tagro, who is close to Gbagbo, said the ceremony should not be seen as a victory or a defeat by any group in the country of over 21 million where ethnic divisions are deep.
“We are seeing the full return of political and administrative normality in Ivory Coast,” Tagro said.
Reunification and fair elections are regarded as vital for encouraging investment back to Ivory Coast, which was an important regional economic hub until the war wrecked its reputation for stability.
The polls are also a necessary precursor for reforms of the cocoa sector, which provides 40 percent of global supply but is struggling with ageing plantations, discouraged farmers and allegations of corrupt administration.
Gbagbo’s camp had long said polls could not take place until central government authority was restored across Ivory Coast and the rebels disarmed.
The handover of the rebel controlled districts, which had itself been delayed previously, had been a cause of friction between the rebels and Gbagbo’s supporters.
The fate of the former rebel district commanders and their forces, who had held powerful and often lucrative positions, remains a sensitive subject.
“Today’s ceremony is not about discarding the zone commanders like used handkerchiefs,” said rebel spokesman Konate.
But redeploying some 8,000 former rebel soldiers and loyalists to ensure security for the elections remains a slow process. So far, only 500 loyalists have been deployed to Bouake while even fewer former rebels are in Abidjan, the commercial capital.