(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Power sharing cabinet meets for first time in five months

[Cote d'Ivoire] Prime Minister Sedydou Diarra flanked by rebel leader Guillaume Soro and Justice Minister Henriette Diabete make their way to the first meeting of Cote d'Ivoire's government of national reconciliation to be held in four months on 9 August

The cabinet of Cote d'Ivoire's government of national reconciliation met on Monday for the first time in five months following a peace summit in Accra to put the country's deadlocked peace process back on track.

President Laurent Gbagbo sat at the same table as nine ministers representing the rebel movement, which has occupied the north of Cote d'Ivoire for the past two years, and 17 others ministers representing the four main opposition parties in parliament.

All 26 had walked out of the broad-based cabinet following the security forces' bloody repression of a banned opposition demonstration in Abidjan on 25 March. UN investigators have said at least 120 people died in the political violence which followed.

Rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who holds the portfolio of Communications Minister, was present at Monday's hour-long cabinet meeting, along with two other ministers who Gbagbo had tried to sack on May 19.

Diplomats said the fact that the G7 opposition alliance had returned to government represented an important first step back to political normality.

A statement from the presidency issued after the cabinet meeting said Gbagbo had passed three decrees.

One let the three previously-fired ministers back into the government.

Another delegated certain powers to politically independent Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, as Gbagbo had agreed at Accra.

The third named a new government spokesman.

In the Ghanaian capital last month, UN General Kofi Annan and 12 African heads of state worked hard for two days with the leaders of Cote d'Ivoire's rival factions to stop a slide back to conflict.

However, the cabinet appears to have made little substantive progress towards legislating political reforms by 31 August, the target date agreed after the Accra talks. The legislation of these reforms is due to clear the way for a long-delayed disarmament programme to start on 15 October.

Gbagbo and Diarra, told reporters that Monday's cabinet meeting was just a first get-together to re-establish contact. The president's office said the cabinet would meet again on Thursday and twice more next week.

Since they signed up to the Accra agreement on 30 July, all the various parties to the Ivorian conflict have maintained a low profile in their public statements. But it is clear that Gbagbo and the rebels still have very different ideas about how some of the key provisions of the agreement should be implemented.

During a speech on Friday to mark Cote d'Ivoire's 44th anniversary of independence from France, Gbagbo pleaded for more time to work out the details of what had been agreed at Accra.

"I ask you to give me the time to finish the round of talks which I have decided to undertake before I speak about the road we have run, about the outcome of the various negotiations, and, in particular, about the agreement signed at the end of the meeting which has just taken place in Accra," he said.

Soro was equally cautious and low-key in his own independence day speech in the rebel capital Bouake in central Cote d'Ivoire on Saturday.

"You see that this morning I have not inspected soldiers and I haven't trodden upon a red carpet. This is what reconciliation and peace demand," Soro said.

But the rebel leader made clear that his forces would only disarm if all the political reforms promised by the January 2003 Linas Marcoussis peace agreement were in place first and that UN peacekeeping forces were fully deployed to maintain security throughout the country.

"There are several conditions for disarmament," Soro said. "We did not just take up arms just to hand them over to our adversary so that a second later he would be able to shoot us dead. Laws must be voted through the national assembly first... These fighters that you see before you, the day they are given a national identity card, it will be easier to ask them to lay down their weapons."

One of the key reforms demanded by the French-brokered Marcoussis peace deal is a revision of the nationality law to make it easier for immigrants to Cote d'Ivoire from other West African countries and their descendents to gain Ivorian nationality.

Before the outbreak of civil war in September 2002, about a quarter of Cote d'Ivoire's 16 million population was of immigrant origin. Most of the incomers came from Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

Another key reform called for by the Marcoussis peace agreement is an amendment to article 35 of the constitution to make it easier for Ivorians of immigrant descent to stand for the presidency. This article was invoked to ban former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, who is popular in northern Cote d'Ivoire, from standing against Gbagbo in the 2000 presidential election.

Key advisers of Gbagbo are sticking to the line that any change to article 35 must be approved by a nationwide referendum after disarmament has taken place.

However, since the Accra summit, Ouattara's own party, the Rally for the Republic (RDR), has said it expects Gbagbo to use emergency powers provided for in the constitution to dispense with the need for a referendum in this instance.

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