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Q&A: “We Don’t Believe Gbagbo Will Organise Transparent Elections”

Interview with Alassane Ouattara

ABIDJAN, Oct 23 2007 (IPS) - Will it be third time lucky for Ivorian opposition leader Alassane Ouattara during presidential elections which many hope will take place in Cote d’Ivoire next year?

IPS&#39s Michael Deibert chats to Alassane Ouattara. Credit:

IPS's Michael Deibert chats to Alassane Ouattara. Credit:

To date, this high-profile politician – a former prime minister and deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – has twice been barred from contesting the presidency.

In 1995 and 2000 he was kept off the ballot by a law excluding candidates with a parent of foreign nationality, or who had lived outside of Côte d’Ivoire for the preceding five years. It was insinuated that Ouattara’s mother was Burkinabé, a claim he has always denied.

This occurred amidst politically-fuelled resentment towards migrants from neighbouring countries and their descendants who had helped Côte d’Ivoire take advantage of brisk economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, but who became unwelcome guests when the economy declined along with commodity prices. A contentious debate was ignited on what constituted Ivorian nationality.

Issues of nationality also underpinned the failed coup of 2002 and subsequent civil war that saw the rebel Forces Nouvelles (New Forces) seize control of northern Côte d’Ivoire, while the government of President Laurent Gbagbo retained control over the south. The administration was further charged by the rebels with human rights abuses, corruption and victimisation of ethnic minorities.

Ouattara and members of his Rally of the Republicans (Rassemblement des Républicains, RDR) were the subject of reprisal attacks by government partisans in the financial capital of Abidjan and elsewhere after the September 2002 coup attempt.

The rebellion remained in a tense stalemate until March of this year, when the two sides signed a power sharing agreement in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. They pledged disarmament, the creation of an integrated national army and provision of citizenship documents (a process known as “identification”) to those who can prove their Ivorian nationality, to enable participation in the proposed poll. New Forces leader Guillaume Soro has also been appointed prime minister.

IPS correspondent Michael Deibert sat down with Ouattara at the RDR’s headquarters in Abidjan earlier this month to get his opinions on the current state of the peace process.

IPS: How would you characterise the political situation in Cote d’Ivoire now?

Alassane Ouattara (AO): We are at a point where we’ll know in the next two or three months if the Ouagadougou agreement can work or not.

Identification (of voters), disarming the two armies – having them go into barracks and leave the streets with Kalashnikovs and the other arms – clearly these two goals will be very difficult to achieve because of issues with ranks and promotions in the national army and the rebel army. And thirdly, we must re-unite the country by deploying professors, doctors, administrators and getting them to really do their work in a national spirit.

IPS: Do you believe the current identification process is genuine and will it be carried through to its conclusion?

AO: We have doubts, but we would like to be optimistic. We believe that the presidential camp did everything to block the process a year ago. Now with the Ouagadougou agreement, they agreed to move ahead. But at every step, they have been blocking the system and putting up obstacles. Fortunately, the prime minister is determined and very shrewd, so he is doing a very good job. But for how long? He himself at some stage may be fed up, because they are really creating obstacles.

IPS: Do you believe that disarmament is happening?

AO: Nothing has happened yet. It’s only symbols.

IPS: What is the status of the electoral code that prevented you from running in the 1995 and 2000 elections?

AO: You have a new provision in the constitution which should remove all these obstacles. (The previous) constitution was done to eliminate some of us. The new constitution to allow us to be candidates was agreed upon in Linas-Marcoussis (France, where the warring parties signed an agreement in January 2003) and voted (passed) by more than 70 percent of the National Assembly under pressure from Mr Thabo Mbeki (South Africa’s president). But Mr Gbagbo has refused to sign off. So it is not yet in effect.

IPS: Are you planning to stand in next year’s presidential elections?

AO: Yes, it’s clear. My party has asked this. We will have a congress of my party in mid-December and at that time it will be formalised. I returned from the IMF to do that and there’s no way for me to back off.

IPS: How do President Gbagbo’s actions bode, so far, for a free and fair vote?

AO: I think…he will not hold elections – because he knows there is a fairly competent electoral commission, there will be external observers, that the army is divided and won’t necessarily back him in fraudulent elections. The tactic for him will be to delay and delay and delay elections.

We believe that at some point the U.N. should really come and re-appropriate the process and organise elections, as it was done in East Timor. The U.N. and the French have been here since 2003, spending half-a-billion dollars a year…If they had a full team for six months to organise elections it would not cost more than half-a-billion.

It’s better that, if by March it is clear the presidential camp is continuing to delay things so as to stay in office, the U.N. should impose an electoral team to organise the elections. That will cost them half-a-billion dollars, but after that they can leave.

IPS: What is the general sentiment regarding the U.N. mission here?

AO: Certainly, we are disappointed that the U.N. abolished the position of high commissioner for elections at the request of Gbagbo…Some of the members of the U.N. Security Council have blocked sanctions against some of Gbagbo’s people who deserve to be sanctioned, both civilian and military. There is a sense of disappointment with the U.N. here.

President Gbagbo’s term constitutionally ended in October 2005. The U.N. has given him two full years. Why should the U.N. continue to do that with our money? Even if Cote d’Ivoire is poor, our money also goes to the budget of the U.N.

IPS: It has been suggested by some that President Gbagbo and the Forces Nouvelles, or at least the leadership of the Forces Nouvelles, have struck some sort of deal to share power and have joined forces to rule the country in a deeper way than is publicly known. What are your thoughts on this?

AO: The Forces Nouvelles took up arms because of well known issues, such as arbitrary decisions by the courts, massive violations of human rights, assassinations. We don’t have any elements to confirm that there is a deal between them. We don’t have that view. If there was a deal, the prime minister would not be so active in finding solutions (to the identification process).

IPS: If the political crisis is solved, that still leaves the economic crisis. What do you think should be done about that?

AO: I think that we will have to take very drastic measures, on the budget, on the management of the country, getting the private sector in a situation where it would trust the courts and the judicial system, getting the banks to a point where they are healthy, getting the support of the international community, the IMF, the World Bank, getting Ivorians who have money abroad to bring it back. It’s a vast problem.

IPS: What is your prognosis for the country?

AO: We sincerely hope that we will have elections by November 2008, though we are not certain. We believe that the U.N. should be serious this time, look at the lack of progress and send a team to organise elections by next year. We don’t believe Gbagbo and his group will organise transparent elections. Otherwise, this country will go into civil war, which is something that we want to avoid by all means.

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