In Côte d’Ivoire five years after a rebellion carved up a country and a people already burdened by ethnic strife, the government is set to begin an operation to tackle the grievance at the heart of the revolt: granting undocumented Ivorians ID papers and the rights that go with them.
Observers say the long-overdue identification process is "make or break". They acknowledge that the open hostilities that marked the early days of the rebellion are far-off, but also say a return to violence is not impossible.
"There's a schizophrenic situation in Côte d'Ivoire," said Pierre Schori, special representative of the UN secretary-general in Côte d’Ivoire from 2005 to February 2007. "You have no armed conflict and the former arch enemies [former rebel leader Guillaume Soro and President Laurent Gbagbo] seem to be working together." African regional bodies are firmly behind the current peace process, he said. "These should be real steps in the right direction."
However, in many ways conditions belie the apparent progress, Schori said, pointing in part to recent reports about violence and human rights abuses in the country.
"The people, and especially women, are still in a very bad situation. The opposition and civil society are excluded. Nothing has moved on several important [matters]. Impunity continues."
"Every day that passes without any real progress is a bad day for the average person in Côte d'Ivoire," Schori said.
Real progress is what Ivorians are waiting for. Economic hardship has deepened for the average Ivorian as basic services like health care and staple foods slip out of many people’s reach. “After five years of crisis,” taxi driver Maxime Abe told IRIN, “this war didn’t bring anything positive to our country. Today, suffering is written on the faces of the people.”
Economic analysts say the balance sheet on the latest transitional government is not all bad, but the average person is hurting and political delays only worsen the situation.
“On the one hand the process towards normalisation with the international financial institutions is going very well,” Bernard Harborne, the World Bank resident representative, told IRIN from the commercial capital, Abidjan.
He said, however, that financial management and healthy revenues from the country’s rich natural resources have not translated into better times for the average Ivorian. While many elements of the economy have been damaged, Côte d’Ivoire remained the world’s top cocoa producer and has oil reserves, he said. “The real challenge remains that these resources, as with all public resources including international aid, are managed to the benefit of the population at large.”
Harborne added: “Like everyone else we remain concerned about the delays in the peace process. The longer the process goes on the more likely you’re going to have spoilers. Transitions have to have momentum. The man and woman on the street have to have confidence that the peace process is going to result in tangible benefits, whether it be an ID card or an end to hostilities between the north and the south.”
After several failed peace deals over the past five years, the March 2007 Ouagadougou accord raised people's hopes with its promises of identification, reunification, disarmament, civic service for ex-combatants and elections.
But nearly seven months later, outside of the formation of a transitional government and some ceremonial steps, everything remains to be done.
While the last international checkpoint along a five-year buffer zone was dismantled on 16 September, rebels (known as Forces Nouvelles) still rule in the northwest, occupying police stations, justice chambers and defunct post offices; all but a few arms used during the conflict have yet to be collected; political actors have yet to reach a compromise on how former rebels will be integrated into the national military; and tension still haunts the upcoming process of providing millions of undocumented Ivorians with identity papers.
"We have to remain very sceptical and vigilant, particularly with regard to this identification process," said Arnim Langer, research officer in economics and politics at the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) at Oxford University. "Many people will attach a lot of significance to this. The question is: Is the Ivorian regime really committed to it?"
President Gbagbo did not appear too committed to a thorough identification process in August when he said the country could go to elections by the end of 2007. Most observers did not take the proposal seriously and questioned Gbagbo’s motives. “It was ambitious to the point of ridicule,” Kissy Agyeman, sub-Saharan Africa analyst for the London-based research group Global Insight, said.
Gbagbo’s ability to hold on to power would likely be threatened by new electoral lists that include millions of new voters from the north.
Despite the president’s announcement, on 13 September the national electoral commission said elections could be held in October 2008, which some say signalled an encouraging degree of independence.
Still, the commission said it was up to the government to decide, and up to now no date has been set for presidential elections. Once again, Gbagbo – elected in a disputed poll in 2000 and kept in place ever since by UN resolutions – holds on to power.
While observers and opposition leaders say it is essential to take the time to properly prepare for elections, they say things should have gotten underway much sooner. “Why has it taken till now to get the process going?” Global Insight’s Agyeman said. “This begs the question whether there really is the political will.”
CRISE’s Langer said the problem of legitimacy deepens as time goes on. “Gbagbo is less and less recognised as president of Côte d’Ivoire. There is a legal basis for his power but his authority does not come from the people.”
Langer added: “The longer this situation of non-legitimacy goes on the more likely a return to violence appears to be.”
Opposition leaders in Côte d’Ivoire agree. “We cannot continue to live in this situation of illegality,” said Niamkey Koffi, spokesperson for former president Henri Konan Bedié. “None of the institutions in power today are legal.”
ID cards for arms
A well-executed identification programme could pull the country out of its state of “illegality”, analysts say. For one thing, it could pave the way for disarmament.
“I think it’s unlikely there will be disarmament of rebels without a proper identification programme,” said Daniel Balint-Kurti, West Africa expert with the London-based think tank Chatham House. The Ouagadougou accord was ambiguous on which process had to finish first, analysts say, but rebels long said they would turn in their arms only once they had identity papers.
Former rebel leader and now prime minister, Soro, told a crowd of people in 2006 in the northern town of Seguela: “We did not take up arms to remain here [occupying the north] forever. We took up arms because we wanted identification.” Once we begin to receive our national ID papers, we will begin to demobilise, he said.
Researcher Langer said: “The end of September will be crucial. If the identification process is carried out properly it could persuade people that this is for real.”