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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Ivorian president wins the peace
By James Copnall
BBC News, Abidjan

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo (R) speaks with new Prime Minister Guillaume Soro after a meeting at the presidential palace in Abidjan on 6 April 2007.
The president and new PM have undermined deals in the past
For the last few years, Ivory Coast's peace process has been a story of failure.

With the country split in half, President Laurent Gbagbo - in control of the south - and rebel leader Guillaume Soro - boss of the north - were unable to rise above their differences.

Both took it in turns to undermine a succession of peace deals, with, if the international community is to be believed, President Gbagbo's deserving the lion's share of the blame.

The international community, principally the United Nations, has been at fault too.

Last November the UN Security Council agreed resolution 1721, which tried to give many of President Gbagbo's powers to the internationally appointed Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny.

The idea was that Mr Konan Banny, a technocrat, would guide the country to free and fair elections.


When President Gbagbo refused to cede ground or powers, the UN showed it that despite its thousands of peacekeepers it did not have the stomach, or perhaps was not sufficiently interested in Ivory Coast, to impose its will.

Ivory Coast's soldiers removes steel blocks at the entrance of the buffer zone in Tiebissou
A bulldozer crumpled a wooden UN guard post... and Ivorians celebrated the removal of a physical reminder of their division

The result was utter stagnation and a gradual falling in living standards throughout the country.

But six weeks ago a new peace deal was signed in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, following direct talks between President Gbagbo and Mr Soro's camps.

Since then, there has been a buzz of activity, and even real change.

First both sides agreed to a joint military command, including rebel and loyalist officers.

Then Mr Soro was named prime minister, an extraordinary turn of events considering that in recent times all of his speeches denounced the president.

A new government has been formed, and an amnesty law created by presidential decree which covers almost all crimes committed by both belligerent parties.

Perhaps most dramatically of all, this week the removal of the buffer zone between the two sides, known as the confidence zone, began.

A bulldozer crumpled a wooden UN guard post in the frontier town of Tiebissou, and Ivorians from all over the country celebrated the beginning of the end of the UN and French-patrolled confidence zone, which provided a very physical reminder of the country's division.

'Hidden agendas'

So why this extraordinary burst of activity, and what does it mean for the country's future?

Guillaume Soro, leader of the MPCI rebels
Soro always said he fought for fair rights for northerners, but he completely sold them out when he signed the Ouagadougou Accord
Political source

For the first time since the start of the war, presidential elections now appear a serious possibility.

But the important question is how transparent and credible they will be.

The man Mr Soro replaced as prime minister has his doubts.

Last week Mr Konan Banny told the BBC he feared both Mr Soro and President Gbagbo had "hidden agendas" which would compromise free and fair elections.

The sudden way in which Mr Soro agreed to join hands with President Gbagbo has raised some suspicions.

Usually the Ivorian press cannot agree on anything, but the newspapers were unanimous after the new government was named earlier this month: President Gbagbo got exactly what he wanted, notably control of key ministries like interior and defence.

Some papers felt he had out-thought his young former rival, others hinted that Mr Soro must have signed some sort of deal with the man he took up arms to overthrow.

Military dissent?

Several of the new prime minister's military commanders are thought to be unhappy with their boss's new alliance.

Military dissent is one potential problem the country may have to face - as it has done, off and on, for nearly a decade now.

A foreign diplomat in Abidjan I spoke to has another concern.

He believes President Gbagbo will do his utmost to organise rigged elections, which he would win.

Another political source agreed.

"Soro always said he fought for fair rights for northerners, but he completely sold them out when he signed the Ouagadougou Accord," he said.

"And that agreement means the elections will be fought on Gbagbo's terms, particularly in terms of identification and electoral lists."

Wind in sails

These are sensitive issues in Ivory Coast.

President Laurent Gbagbo
President Gbagbo seems to have got the upper hand

Millions of Ivorians do not have identity papers, and many northerners say they have been discriminated against by being denied the Ivorian nationality they have a right to.

For these observers at least, the most likely outcome in Ivory Coast is flawed elections that would give President Gbagbo five more years in office.

A more flattering analysis for President Gbagbo would be that he is counting on the political capital he would gain from reunifying the country to sweep the elections.

Another possibility is that the elections will be postponed, as they have been twice in the recent past.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that President Gbagbo has the wind in his sails.

The UN attempted to sideline him, but he first ignored the international pressure and then sidelined it, by creating and signing the Ouagadougou Accord.

And the president seems to have got the upper hand over his young prime minister.

After years of taking the punches, the president now seems close to landing a knockout blow.

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