Analysis: Burkina Faso push needed to end Ivory Coast impasse

Ivory Coast, once West Africa’s economic powerhouse, looks unlikely to hold long-delayed elections this year unless Burkina Faso’s mediation can resolve six years of political and military gridlock.

The United Nations concedes that the peace process in the world’s top cocoa grower has “stalled”, Reuters notes.

Its panel of experts says parties are rearming and an explosion of violence looms, especially in the north, if they feel their economic interests are threatened.

Ivory Coast, once a regional beacon of stability and relative prosperity, has grown poorer since rebels (pictured) tried to oust President Laurent Gbagbo in a brief 2002-2003 war that left the country split in two.

The peace deal brokered by Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou in March 2007 offered the best chance yet for presidential elections to be held for the first time since 2000.

Some 6 million voters have been registered, but election dates continue to slip and disarmament has stagnated — leaving former rebels still running the north, long after a Jan. 15 deadline for them to hand over local powers and tax duties.

The voter identification process, which still needs to begin in more than 200 locations before the information is processed and cross-checked and cards are printed, has been suspended amid quibbles over funding.

With so many election deadlines having come and gone, many question whether diplomatic efforts to ramp up the pressure — led by the United States, which said this month polls were still “technically possible” in 2009 — will have any impact.

The economic consequences of years of unrest have been severe: the proportion of people defined as poor under a range of UN indicators has leapt to just under 50 percent from 38 percent in 2002.

“If (the Ivorians) had the political will, they could do it. Do they? It is difficult to tell,” said an Abidjan diplomat who declined to be named.

“This is the time when the facilitator must play his role. (But) he does not want to be seen to be imposing anything. He will let them talk, shout at each other before reaching a semblance of an understanding.”

Accusations of stalling have been levelled at all sides.

Gbagbo, nearing the end of a second five-year term without having had to stand for re-election since he came to power in 2000, is accused by some of putting off elections because he fears he cannot win.

Some politicians say his insistence on a rigid sequencing of disarmament by former rebels in the north and militias in the south two months ahead of elections is a stalling tactic.

“This is not an insurmountable obstacle. We need to go forward,” said Ali Coulibaly, a senior member of the Rally for the Republicans (RDR), his political rivals who were given a share of power in the interim peace deal.

“We say that nothing must delay the process. We have achieved a lot. (Even) in Iraq there were elections,” he said.

The former rebels of the New Forces (FN) must also contend with competing agendas.

Their leader Guillaume Soro, made prime minister in the 2007 deal, is under pressure as he juggles organising elections, defending the FN’s position and securing his own political future.

He faces calls from colleagues to resign over scathing attacks from the president’s camp. He is also accused of being out of touch, or having sold out the FN rank and file, after taking up his post in the government.

Internal rivalries also blur the power structure in the north, making it hard for FN leaders to impose control.

Local commanders, some of whom are accused of rights abuses or are on U.N. sanctions lists, are vying with each other for control of lucrative fiefdoms and worrying about what will happen if they relinquish power to central government.

The UN panel of experts says the former rebels earn “billions of CFA francs” (millions of dollars) every year from taxation and smuggling in their spheres of influence.

Analysts say the fact that any voter registration is taking place at all is putting pressure on the FN to give up control of the north. One of the initial rebel demands in 2002 was that everyone in Ivory Coast be registered to ensure elections were truly representative.

“We have reached a time when they can’t come up with any more excuses,” the diplomat said. “The presidential camp can claim that they have allowed this to take place, so they (the rebels) must reciprocate.”

But the latest U.N. experts’ report says all sides remain heavily armed and some are buying new weapons to entrench their control over territory and resources — despite an arms embargo.

“Should the political situation in the country deteriorate, and the economic interests of some parties be threatened by such events, the Group cannot exclude a situation in which armed violence may escalate rapidly, particularly in the north.”

The UN experts also complain that both government forces and former rebels blocked their attempts to inspect weapons.

“There is a lot of bad will on both sides. The Ouaga agreement is blocked on all fronts,” said Daniela Kroslak, deputy Africa programme head at the International Crisis Group.

“It looks like we are going to have a botched process. We will have elections in 2010 and something major will happen with the results.”