SA makes about-turn on Côte d'Ivoire

South Africa has done an about-turn on the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, endorsing Alassane Ouattara as Ivorian president and swelling the international community’s call for Laurent Gbagbo, who lost last year’s election, to step down.

The change of heart is fuelled by President Jacob Zuma’s recent state visit to France, where he is said to have had very “hard talks” with French President Nicholas Sarkozy on the Ivorian crisis and the need for a unanimous stance by the panel that was set up by the African Union to seek a solution.

After elections in December last year, Ouattara was declared president by the Ivorian Independent Electoral Commission, while the country’s Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner.

Sources privy to last week’s talks between Zuma and Sarkozy said the latter had argued very strongly that Ouattara is the legitimate leader. “They had a robust discussion and Sarkozy was clear on where he stood on the matter,” a diplomat said.

At the time Zuma did not signal a change in his stance and he subsequently flew to Mauritania in West Africa for a meeting with the members of the panel, which includes Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Mali and Chad.

‘New approach’
It had become clear that the panel could not agree on what to recommend to the AU’s Peace and Security Council, unless Zuma changed South Africa’s stance from one of neutrality—interpreted as implicit support for Gbagbo—to outright support for Ouattara.

“There’s a new approach in which we say Ouattara needs to be made president and Gbagbo needs to step down. This decision was taken after the state visit to France and the meeting in Mauritania,” a government insider said.

Ouattara will be asked to include members of Gbagbo’s camp in his Cabinet, which he has agreed to do. The panel presented its recommendations to the Peace and Security Council on Thursday.

Although South Africa’s change of heart will be welcomed by the international community, it does not bring the AU any closer to ­finding a solution to the crisis, which has had violent repercussions in Côte d’Ivoire.

“Now the question is how to get Gbagbo out and that’s the hard part,” the government insider said. Gbagbo and Ouattara were invited to the Thursday meeting, but Gbagbo instead sent the leader of his political party, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, claiming the domestic security situation was too volatile for him to leave. President of the Constitutional Council Paul Yao N’Dre, who declared Gbagbo president, was also invited, but it is unclear whether he attended.

A diplomat said: “He was called to explain to the Peace and Security Council how the counting was done, and to admit that they were wrong in not taking into account the votes they left out.” The Constitutional Council rejected 700 000 votes cast in areas where Ouattara has most support.

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said at a media briefing on Thursday that the country is still awaiting the outcome of the discussion at the meeting in Addis Ababa.

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