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Prayers in Abidjan: Even the most divided societies can be reconciled, but we have to engage decisively (Reuters)

Prayers in Abidjan: Even the most divided societies can be reconciled, but we have to engage decisively



Follow Mandela’s example in Côte d’Ivoire Add to ...

Beyond Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary personal generosity and vision, what was also celebrated at his death was the clear evidence that the most divided societies can be brought together if there is leadership at home and support from the international community.

Nowhere in the world is that example more compelling than on Mr. Mandela’s own continent, Africa. As the news of his death was announced, we were arriving in Côte d’Ivoire, leading a National Democratic Institute mission to help prepare for a peaceful presidential election in 2015.

Côte d’Ivoire was once an African beacon of prosperity and peace, but following a decade of election-related violence, it descended into civil war after the 2010 presidential election. The last head of state, Laurent Gbagbo, sits in a cell in The Hague awaiting charges in the International Criminal Court. He refused to accept the results certified by the United Nations. The death count was more than 3,000 women, men and children, three times the deaths in the more publicized disputed Kenyan election of 2008. The damage to one of West Africa’s more stable societies ran deep and the country is just now beginning its journey back.

The NDI was invited by President Alassane Ouattara to send a neutral international panel to speak and listen to the leaders of parties, religious groups, civil society, legislators and electoral and other officials. We were encouraged by the positive and forward-looking attitudes we encountered. While deep divisions remain, there is a strong memory of a time when the country was whole, and a genuine desire to find common ground.

The government has advanced a strong strategy for economic growth and launched a serious reconciliation process that has engaged most of the opposition parties. They have been talking about the role of a restructured election commission, voting lists that need to be updated, security concerns, financing issues related to party activities and the need for a new election law that clarifies lines of authority and processes. However, north-south, religious and ethnic differences remain and could boil to the surface during the campaign for the next presidential election, just 22 months away.

Mr. Gbagbo’s party, the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), had refused to participate in the discussions about reform and reconciliation. Coincidentally, a very positive change came while we were there. The FPI initiated a meeting with the ruling party coalition to advance a case for a new framework for broader dialogue. They are late coming to the table, but if they offer constructive suggestions and do not delay what is already a tight timetable, we believe that the governing parties are willing to engage them.

We came away believing that the government is prepared to create a process and a dialogue that will go far toward creating trust and buy-in by all parties. Our delegation will issue a report that relates the concerns we heard and provides options for action, some of which have already been tested by neighbouring countries facing comparable challenges.

Côte d’Ivoire is also a test for the international community. The evident Ivoirien interest in serious dialogue, and in legal reforms that can produce a fair and competitive election, can succeed only if there is a sense that campaigning for office will be safe in all regions. The security environment remains a major challenge.

Outside the cities of Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, the capital, armed militias roam the countryside. We were told that about 60,000 “dozos,” traditional hunters from the north, operate without discipline, setting up roadblocks and raiding homes for “taxes.” Many Gbagbo supporters are living in exile in the border region and are well armed. Bands of unemployed youths brandish weapons and intimidate villagers. The demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DD&R) campaign of the UN and the government has done little so far to allay concerns.

The safeguards and reforms that need to be in place for a peaceful election in 2015 will require more resources than are now available. Yet, as internal progress is just beginning, the UN mission is gradually winding down. There is a risk that hard-pressed donors will interpret these new signs of consensus and relative calm as an excuse to step away, rather than a reason to engage decisively.

The UN peacekeeping force should be strengthened during the electoral campaign and its DD&R activities stepped up. Donors should give priority to supporting electoral and related reforms, with financial and technical support, and to buy back guns and help create jobs and confidence, particularly for young people.

South Africa’s inspirational foresight and healing, which the world celebrated in honouring the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, occurred in stages, requiring courage and co-operation on the ground, and patience and persistence in the international community. The tensions in Côte d’Ivoire are not as deep or entrenched, but there are promising parallels in the instinct of former adversaries to reconcile their differences and focus on some basic reforms.

This is an opportunity to do more than celebrate good examples – we have to follow them.

Joe Clark is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Canada. Brian Atwood is a former administrator of USAID and a recent chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee.

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