Junta's Reform Pledge Lifts Hopes for Ivory Coast

Los Angeles Times,
Tuesday, 28 December ,1999

By ANN M. SIMMONS, Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya--As life began to return to normal in Ivory Coast on Monday after a largely bloodless Christmas Eve coup, hope grew that there would be little domestic upheaval if the new military rulers kept their promise to restore democratic rule.

Diplomats and analysts said the former French colony--experiencing its first-ever coup after years in which it was among Africa's most stable countries--might follow the example of Nigeria and Niger, where within the last year military regimes handed power back to civilians.

Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei promised to ensure security, restore state authority, create conditions for free and fair elections, and build a government of consensus. "The general seems to be making the right noises," said one Western diplomat, who spoke by phone from Abidjan, the Ivorian commercial capital. "The guy seems to be reasonable. But given the situation here, we're waiting to see if he will put his money where his mouth is."

Guei ousted President Henri Konan Bedie on Friday. The deposed leader and 10 family members were flown to neighboring Togo on Sunday in a French air force helicopter. On Monday, he traveled to Nigeria for talks with President Olusegun Obasanjo, who together with South African leaders denounced the coup and called for Bedie's reinstatement.

The United States, Britain and Canada condemned the putsch, calling for a return to constitutional order or early democratic elections, but they stopped short of urging that Bedie be reinstated. Analysts Say Military Rulers Need Timetable Many Ivorians were glad to see Bedie go. But analysts said that to maintain popular support, the military rulers need to quickly lay out a timetable for a return to democratic rule, establish rules for the presidential elections currently scheduled for October, and set up an independent electoral commission.

" This (commission) is something most Ivorians have been clamoring for, and it's something that can organize the elections in a very objective and neutral manner," said Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for West, Central and East Africa at Washington's National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Fomunyoh said the junta also would be wise to establish a mechanism to investigate government corruption and mismanagement, which would win it favor with the general populace.

"But the overarching signal that everybody will be waiting for is that the junta sees itself as an instrument of transition rather than a body that would stay in power," Fomunyoh said. Guei, who immediately suspended the constitution, courts and parliament, appointed nine senior military officers to a National Committee of Public Salvation, which will oversee the country until democracy is restored. The general, who was fired by Bedie as army chief in 1995 amid coup rumors, named himself president of the committee. State-run radio said Monday that the panel planned to draft a new constitution, and Guei reportedly met with officials of the nation's political parties. "I would be surprised if the military would hang on for a long time," said I. William Zartman, director of African studies and conflict management programs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "The military in Ivory Coast is among the least political, the most controlled, in Africa. This is the law-and-ordercoup.

This is the senior officers' coup." Fomunyoh said it appears that the military officers understand that coups are no longer welcome in Africa. "They could easily get rejected by Ivorians, as well as the international community, and that would make it untenable for them to want to stay in power for a long time," he said. Bedie's Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast had governed since independence from France in 1960. He took office in 1993 but became increasingly unpopular because of the arrest and imprisonment of opposition party leaders, political shenanigans designed to stifle potential contenders for the presidency, and increased corruption and mismanagement that led to the suspension of international financial assistance.

President Was Accused of Stirring Xenophobia He also was accused of stirring up anti-foreign sentiment in a country where at least a third of the 15 million people are foreign-born. This issue came to a head when Bedie accused Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and potential presidential candidate, of being a national of Burkina Faso.

The coup, though largely bloodless and only mildly disruptive compared with others in West Africa in recent years, might temporarily shake investor confidence. Concerns mounted that it would further delay aid money, which already had been frozen, undermine Ivory Coast's chances for much-needed debt reduction and hamper the country's lucrative cocoa sector. News of the coup pushed cocoa shares up 8% last week. The coup, triggered by a protest over unpaid bonuses and poor living conditions, also might set a precedent in a region dogged by political turmoil. "These things spread, and they spread in the family--the family being the French-speaking African states," said Zartman of Johns Hopkins. "So it can have wide ripples." Ivorians, most of whom tried to resume their daily routine Monday, told reporters in the capital that they were pleased Bedie had been ousted. The ex-president's plea to civilians to counter the coup "by any means" fell on deaf ears.

The coup could have been far messier if France, Bedie's primary foreign supporter, had intervened. France reinforced its 550-strong garrison with 40 extra soldiers to protect about 20,000 French citizens in the country. But Paris has so far refused to get involved, short of assisting Bedie to flee. "The French have clearly decided not to intervene--not to put up any resistance, but to take Bedie quietly out of the country," said one political observer based in Abidjan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was a bloodless change of government. You couldn't ask for a more polite military takeover."