Ivory Coast’s defence minister has said rebels must disarm before elections can be held, a demand which could further delay a poll seen as critical to renewing investor interest in the world’s top cocoa grower.
Disarmament has been a key sticking point as the West African nation gears up for what would be its first elections since a 2002-03 civil war.
Under a previous agreement, rebels were to return to their barracks before the vote, but President Laurent Gbagbo’s camp is now insisting on complete disarmament.
“If there is no disarmament, there will not be an election,” Michel Amani N’Guessan, defence minister and a close Gbagbo ally, told army officers meeting late on Tuesday to discuss the future of the military.
“Today in Ivory Coast we have two armies on the ground. We first need to restore (one) army. (…) Then the army must secure the elections,” he added.
The elections, meant to reunify the country, restore investor confidence and pave the way for reforms aimed at reviving the suffering cocoa industry, were originally due to take place in 2005 but have been repeatedly delayed.
The rebels, who have controlled the country’s north since the civil war, say they have disarmed fighters and are now waiting for a newly elected president to complete the process.
But they also stand accused of dragging their feet on disarmament to profit from the illegal taxation they continue to levy in regions they control.
N’Guessan cited a deal that was brokered in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, and called for disarmament at least two months before elections take place.
His comments, which have been echoed by other members of Gbagbo’s camp touring the country, represent a hardening of the president’s position. Last year Gbagbo and the rebels agreed the vote could take place if the rebels returned to barracks in four main towns in the north.
“It is pure political positioning,” said Rinaldo Depagne, an Ivory Coast expert at the International Crisis Group.
“Six to eight months ago, (all sides) took a realistic position. Everyone agreed it was impossible (to disarm before elections). But the row over the lists changed everything.”
Last month, Gbagbo dissolved both the unity government and the election commission in a row over the process of identifying eligible voters.
Gbagbo accused the poll body of including foreigners on the election lists but his critics say he is stalling on the polls as he is not sure of winning the vote. The move led to days of violent protests before a new government and election commission were set up.
Depagne said he believed the election process had “completely stopped”.
Pic: New Forces rebels disarmement