First talks in months for Ivorian parties

Côte d’Ivoire’s political opposition met President Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday for the first time in three months, with high hopes that a rebel boycott of the talks will not impede efforts to reconcile the troubled African cocoa giant.

The day of talks, split into two parts, aimed to revive a moribund, French-brokered peace pact signed in January last year to reunite the rebel-held north and the ferociously partisan south after a failed coup against Gbagbo plunged the country into war.

Top on the agenda was the restoration of normal government function, suspended since opposition ministers quit attending Cabinet meetings to protest a deadly, state-sanctioned crackdown on a pro-peace rally in March that left at least 120 dead, according to a United Nations human rights team.

Key demands from the loosely aligned opposition coalition known as the G7 were the reinstatement of three ministers sacked by the president in the wake of the walkout.

They also sought security guarantees amid new tensions in the main city, Abidjan, following incursions by both sides into the ceasefire zone slashed across the centre of the country.

On the ruling party’s side was the continued insistence that the rebels disarm before the peace pact — which addresses key catalysts of the war including land ownership and national identity — is fully implemented.

Tuesday’s talks came barely a week after a UN Security Council delegation travelled to Abidjan bearing a stern message for the main protagonists in the crisis that has pummelled the economy which has been a driver of the West African economic engine.

Should there be no tangible progress towards reconciliation and the outbursts of violence continue, Côte d’Ivoire could be hit with targeted sanctions, diplomats said, including travel bans and the freezing of bank accounts.

Pronouncing that the president is a ”dilettante” responsible for the Côte d’Ivoire impasse, the rebels announced their boycott on Monday, saying they refuse to sit down with Gbagbo without mediation by the UN.

In Libreville, the office of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba said he will meet this week with the Ivorian opposition parties, including members of the rebel New Forces, after holding talks on Tuesday with a delegation from Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front.

Bongo met with Gbagbo last week in the Gabon’s capital as part of efforts to revive the peace process.

UN peacekeepers have been deployed in Côte d’Ivoire since April and have been seen by Gbagbo partisans to favour the rebels and the opposition. A UN spokesperson said on Tuesday that the request has been declined.

Little emerged in the break between sessions, though it seemed unlikely that much progress would be made despite the stated intentions from all sides prior to the opening of discussions, which were expected to continue on Wednesday,

”[The opposition] told President Gbagbo that it was up to him to act, as a show of faith so that government function would be restored,” a source close to the talks said on condition of anonymity. ”Laurent Gbagbo said he has already done a lot.”

Regional leaders fear that continued unrest in Côte d’Ivoire could bleed over its porous borders, reigniting conflict in next-door Liberia, itself emerging from 14 years of war, or destabilising northwestern neighbour Guinea.

While Ghana, to the east, has reaped some benefits from Côte d’Ivoire’s struggle — including higher traffic at its expanding Tema port — President John Kufuor has been key to regional mediation efforts under the aegis of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, which he currently leads.

The Ghanaian capital, Accra, is to host a third summit of Ivorian political actors in coming days, local media reported, with Kufuor and the Gabonese president, considered a key Gbagbo ally, mediating. — Sapa-AFP

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Laurent Banguet
Laurent Banguet
West Coast Reporter for AFP, based in Los Angeles.

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