In Ivory Coast, a Fragile Peace Is Framed by Promises Unfulfilled

By Michael Deibert
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 16, 2007

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast -- Manning a rebel roadblock leading into this dusty, sunbaked city, Kone Omar spoke wearily of a life at war.

"We hope things improve and the peace settles all over the country," the 26-year-old combatant said, referring to an eight-month-old power-sharing agreement between the Forces Nouvelles, or New Forces, rebel army and the government of Ivory Coast. "I didn't join this army to fight forever."

Bouake, the country's second-largest city, sprawled northward behind him, a collection of low-slung buildings, cacophonous traffic and spit-and-polish rebel soldiers who patrol the streets.

About 200 miles south, the country's economic capital, Abidjan, stands in glossy contrast, with its high-rise buildings and crisscrossing modern highways. On the busy streets there, pro-government militias periodically violently harass opponents of President Laurent Gbagbo.

Five years ago, Ivory Coast was split in half when rebels seized the northern part of the country in a brief but bloody civil war.

Both sides touted the March agreement as the best chance for peace in a conflict littered with broken covenants and mutual distrust.

But the presence of combatants in both cities underscores the fact that men with guns in this resource-rich country wield the power. And despite the power-sharing deal, Ivorians say they have seen precious few improvements in their lives.

"What we have here is a cold peace," said Francis Akind¿s, an intense, bespectacled former professor of economics at the University of Bouake who left for Abidjan following the university's destruction at the outset of the war. "The situation looks like it has improved, but it's almost the same, and the real problems that caused the war have never been solved. The average person is very poor, and their everyday tribulations are enormous. They cannot afford their basic needs anymore."

Ivory Coast's economy flourished under President F¿lix Houphou¿t-Boigny, who ruled the country after its independence from France in 1960 until his death in 1993. The government welcomed immigrants to help speed development, and thousands poured in from Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.

But after a coup in 1999, political and economic instability deepened, and tensions began brewing between Ivorians and immigrants, who account for about 30 percent of the country's 17 million people.

In 2000, Gbagbo won the presidency in an election in which opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was again barred from running because of new rules prohibiting candidates with a foreign-born parent. Ouattara's opponents insinuated that his mother was from Burkina Faso.

Hostility at Gbagbo's rhetoric on national identity -- critics said he sought to disenfranchise the country's northern and western regions, where many immigrants had settled -- was one of the driving frustrations behind the war.

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