Dangerous Divide

With Ivory Coast elections looming, fears of new bloodshed rise

July 12, 2005


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Appiah Kabran whipped a shiny 9mm pistol from a holster at his waist and explained why a bespectacled lawmaker like himself might need it in war-divided Ivory Coast.

"To kill rebels," the cigar-smoking politician said bluntly. "I don't trust anything but this."

Jest or no, the words highlight a dangerous divide between hardline supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo and northern rebels that appears to be widening as Oct. 30 presidential elections near.

The poll represents a sliver of hope that Ivory Coast can emerge from years of crisis. But with neither side disarming and a legislature blocked on reforms the rebels have demanded, many believe the ballot will be delayed _ and fear a new round of bloodshed even if it goes ahead.

"Everybody is afraid, very afraid," said Didier Aye, a 35-year-old selling suave African-style shirts at a shop in the shadows of Abidjan's towering skyscrapers. "We don't know where our country is going. Nobody knows what's going to happen next."

Once an oasis of stability in war-ravaged West Africa, Ivory Coast began its spiraling descent with a 1999 coup, its first. Years of sporadic uprisings and violence boiled over into a September 2002 coup attempt that failed, but left the nation split between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south.

Major fighting ended with a peace deal signed in France in 2003. But peace talks have dragged on in Togo, Ghana, and last week, in South Africa again.

The impending ballot has increased pressure on both sides to implement agreements they've mostly paid only lip-service to so far. But Pierre Schori, who heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission here, said positions were hardening instead.

"The closer we come to October, the more reluctance there is on either side," Schori told The Associated Press. "There is a lack of trust, confidence. Each side is waiting for the other to do something first."

A city once known for its nightlife now rings with gunshots after sunset and restaurants turn customers away by early evening, fearful of staying open late. At ubiquitous checkpoints, the flashlights of paramilitary police shine ominously in the darkness.

By day, newspapers splash anxious front-page headlines: "Gbagbo is Going to Burn the Country This Weekend!" and militia leader interviews: "The solution, A Popular War."

At a park in the city center, crowds gather daily from dawn to dusk to listen to hard-liners and pro-Gbagbo Young Patriot youth militants heap scorn on rebels and their alleged puppet master, former colonial power France.

On the other side of a U.N. patrolled buffer zone that separates the warring sides by about 40 kilometers (25 miles), a few black rebel vehicles are painted with the telling words: "Fatherland or Death, We Will Overcome."

Rebels escort journalists through their headquarters, bombed in November during several days of government air-raids that left starburst shrapnel holes in buildings and collapsed roofs into twisted piles of concrete.

Thousands of French, Lebanese and West African expatriates fled that spasm of violence, as they did others before it. Some stayed on alone, shipping their wives and children abroad to keep them out of harm's way.

In a country where rebel and army forces have fought to a standstill, some question how a ballot can be held at all.

"How can you have elections when the country is divided in two and the politicians on both sides are blocking everything?" Aye asked.

In rebel-held Bouake, Yaya Kone, a 49-year-old bar owner, agreed.

"You need identity cards to register to vote. Most people here don't even have those yet," Kone said, curling the sides of mouth in disgust before pronouncing his verdict: "Elections? Not possible."

Both sides say they're ready to hold the vote, but one blames Gbagbo loyalists for blocking key nationality laws in parliament, the other blames rebels' failure to disarm.

"We're at a crossroads," Kabran said in his Abidjan law office, where a painting of himself in eyeglasses and tribal attire hangs on the wall. "We can fall apart, or we can have peace."

Peace, he said, would be a Gbagbo victory. Another possible outcome, opposition leader Alassane Ouattara securing the presidency, would mean "automatic war," Kabran said.

Even if key legislation is passed, rebels would find other excuses not to disarm, Kabran said, adding: "I believe the war has not ended. Maybe it is beginning."

Ouattara, a former prime minister, was barred from running in the 2000 vote because of questions over his nationality. Gbagbo has declared Ouattara can stand this time around _ a key rebel demand. But rebels say Gbagbo hasn't done enough to ensure voting will be free and fair.

In the buffer zone, bus driver Martin Toure waited just after a U.N. checkpoint. He'd spent the morning navigating nine government roadblocks and faced 10 more rebel-manned barriers ahead.

"This war, don't need it any more," Toure said, before climbing aboard the huge bus to Bouake. "We ask God everyday to end it."

Copyright 2005 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.