Côte d'Ivoire

Cote d'Ivoire: UN to stay and support elections

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ABIDJAN, 20 June 2007 (IRIN) - Concerns that Ivorian leaders might block the UN from helping to organise and supervise long-delayed elections were allayed on 19 June following a meeting between with a UN Security Council delegation and the country's president and former rebel leader-turned-prime minister.

"In the end President [Laurent] Gbagbo and Prime Minister [Guillaume] Soro gave us assurances that the elections will be supervised by the UN," the head of the UN delegation, Peruvian Ambassador Jorge Voto-Bernales said at a press conference in Abidjan following a two day mission to the country.

In May President Gbagbo had demanded that the UN remove its two most senior officials in the country, Pierre Schori, special representative of the UN secretary general, and Gerard Stoudmann, the UN elections overseer for Cote d'Ivoire.

Gbagbo accused them of behaving "as if they had power to govern Cote d'Ivoire ".

President Gbagbo and his staff have so far been unavailable for comment on whether the president has indeed changed his position regarding the UN. But according to the head of the UN Security Council delegation the meeting on 19 June with the president and prime minister was constructive and "served to engage the parties in moving forward with the peace process."

Voto-Bernales also said, "the Security Council will soon begin the process of considering appropriate methods and instruments to support the election process."

The UN Security Council is set to vote on a new resolution for Cote d'Ivoire at the end of June, when the current mandate of the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) expires.

Voto-Bernales said the government made assurances that it would soon begin systematically identifying who is an Ivorian citizen and who is not, an issue that was at the heart of the 2002 civil war and which has continued to be an obstacle to reuniting the country and holding elections.

The UN would remain in Cote d'Ivoire to "certify" the identification process and support the implementation of the Ouagadougou Peace Agreement, Voto-Bernales said.

The agreement signed on 4 March in Ouagadougou, where it was brokered by Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, includes the redeployment of government officials to the rebel-held north, the identification and voter registration process, holding of presidential elections, the disarmament and reintegration of former combatants and the formation of a new army comprising government and some ex-rebel forces.

Disarmament of militias and rebels has yet to begin and the ex-rebels and the military have still not agreed on how they will be integrating into a new national army.

Technical delays

The head of the Security Council delegation noted what he called "technical delays" in the implementation of the Ouagadougou accord. However, he said "authorities have expressed their willingness to act as quickly as possible to overcome these difficulties, and intend to respect the timeline outlined in the Ouagadougou agreement."

President Compaore has announced recently that Cote d'Ivoire would hold presidential elections in early 2008 but several international observers say the voting cannot be organised before mid-2008 at the earliest.

The elections are to be held 10 months from when the identification process is to begin, according to ONUCI spokesperson Hamadoun Toure, who talked with IRIN shortly before the delegation arrived. "What we don't know is when is that process is going to begin."

An attempt in mid-2006 to launch special 'mobile tribunals' designed to grant identity documents to people who never had birth certificates was shut down following violent protests by supporters of President Gbagbo.

The Justice Ministry has still not given a start date for the distribution of identity papers to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented inhabitants of the country who would apply for citizenship. Estimates of the number of people born in Cote d'Ivoire but who have never registered range from 500,000 to 3 million.

Who is Ivorian?

Most of the unregistered inhabitants are northerners who say they have faced discrimination. They say Ivorian authorities have blocked many of them from obtaining identity cards, perceiving them as foreigners because they have roots in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.

Since independence in 1960 every head of state in Cote d'Ivoire has been a southerner.

The identification process would likely result in the redrawing of electoral boundaries and could ultimately threaten the dominance of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front party.

Much remains to be done before the identification process can even start. "Prefects must be in place, the local government must be operational and there must be a clear action plan," one observer said. "At the moment none of these conditions have been met."

But he and other observers also caution against rushing the process. "The major threat to the Ouagadougou plan would be the identification process not being carried out properly," said Gilles Yabi, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Carrying it out quickly just to beat the clock would not resolve the problem."

The UN Security Council delegation said that it would not attempt to impose a date for the elections. "The most important thing is that all sides are able to reach an agreement on a timeline for getting the country out of this crisis," Voto-Bernales said.

Many international observers say the Ouagadougou pact represents a clear step forward after five years of 'no war, no peace,' after so many agreements failed in the past. But they are concerned that this agreement may yet fail also.

"I still believe in the Ouagadougou accord, but this is Cote d'Ivoire's last chance. There won't be another way out," one diplomat in Abidjan said. "This accord must succeed. If it doesn't, what can we possibly do?"

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