Fears of fresh turmoil mount ahead of landmark weekend

Rumours swirl about a military coup in the offing, police are bracing for protests, well-heeled Ivorians have booked flights out of the country, and there is a story doing the rounds about the birth of a talking baby who warned of violence within days.

In Bouake, the town that has served as rebel headquarters since the start of Cote d'Ivoire's simmering three-year war, many people are taking the baby tale as truth and going about with white protection bands wrapped around their wrists to spare them from any trouble.

"There are always things like this when people get nervous," said Boris, a young resident of Bouake who has heard the tale but won't wear the band. "At the beginning of the war there was something like that every week. I don't do that stuff any more."

As another politically-charged date comes around in West Africa’s economic powerhouse this weekend, the old tales are resurfacing as fears mount of a fresh outbreak of war.

“Not since the country gained independence have so many uncertainties hung over the future of Cote d’Ivoire,” human rights group, Amnesty International, said in a report released on Wednesday. “There is a shared responsibility to stop the country from descending into chaos.”

The nervousness is the end-product of the collapse of a peace plan that provided for elections to be held on Sunday 30 October when President Laurent Gbagbo’s five-year mandate runs out.

But faced with a disarmament programme that never got off the ground, political deadlock, and a country still split into a government-run south and a rebel-held north, the African Union (AU) and UN Security Council had to have a rethink.

They called for an extension of Gbagbo's mandate for a maximum 12 months and the nomination of a new and more powerful prime minister by 31 October to steer the country to reunification and the long-promised elections.

However, fighting between the parties for the post of prime minister and the prospect of a possible vacuum has left the country on edge.

So much so that AU President Olusegun Obasanjo and South African President Thabo Mbeki, who brokered the latest in a string of peace plans, are to fly into Cote d'Ivoire to smooth the nomination of a new prime minister.

Bridge across Abidjan lagoon

Rallies

“There will be nothing,” Gbagbo said in a televised address Wednesday.

But although street marches have been banned by presidential decree, police and residents fear stadium rallies planned for the weekend could get out of hand.

"It's not clear at all what we should expect, it’s a big question mark," said human rights worker Bamba Drissa as he stepped out of a taxi. "I just asked the taxi driver what he thought, and he said he was staying at home this weekend."

Pro-Gbagbo youths, known as the Young Patriots, are preparing to stage a stadium rally in the main city Abidjan on Sunday, which they say is to celebrate the national soccer team's qualification for the 2006 World Cup.

In response, the youth wing of the opposition coalition has called on its supporters to gather on Saturday in another stadium, also allegedly to pay homage to the soccer team.

But the youngsters freely admit that not only football is on their minds.

"We want to say to our militants that peace is near and that they should get ready for a new phase, a new dynamic in this country," the youth leader of the opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, Karamoko Yayoro, told IRIN.

In the rebel stronghold of Bouake, some 330 km from Abidjan, angry youth groups have appeared on local rebel-run television to say they want Gbagbo to leave.

"Young people are tired of seeing that the international community won't do anything about Gbagbo, so they say they'll do it themselves," said a television journalist.

Reports of dissent within the army ranks are further fuelling anxiety.

In an unusual announcement, the Ivorian army on Tuesday said it would close one of the two strategic bridges that run across the lagoon in the heart of Abidjan for half an hour every day until Sunday. The closure was to allow a special military training exercise on the waters of the lagoon, the army said.
What now?

"Everybody is in the dark about what's going to happen. I am not very worried at the moment, but there is a possibility that things can spiral out of control," a western diplomat told IRIN. "Many people I know have left for one or two weeks to wait it out."

Indeed, one happy travel agent said flights from Abidjan to capitals in the region had been fully booked since the beginning of the week.

"I've sold lots of tickets!" Fanta Fofana told IRIN. "Many middle and senior executives have left and will only return late next week. Of course, these are the people who can afford it."

The 4,000 French peacekeepers who along with 6,000 UN troops monitor the buffer zone that cuts a swathe across the country, will also be ready for the worst, with memories of last November's anti-foreigner riots still fresh in their minds.

Two weeks ago, a squadron of 80 gendarmes was put on standby in France to be flown into Cote d'Ivoire at 24 hours notice, according to French army spokesman Jean-Luc Cotard.

And this week, nine extra tanks arrived in Abidjan, in a reinforcement of material that unwittingly fuelled rumours among many Gbagbo supporters that the French were plotting to remove their leader to install his arch rival and RDR leader, Alassane Ouattara.

To top it all off, more and more disaffected soldiers claming to have broken ranks with the Ivorian army are issuing threats via messages posted on the Internet or in radio interviews.

One such soldier, Colonel Philippe Zadi, warned earlier this month that a coup d'etat was a mere matter of time.

"We want the president to leave power in the hands of a transitional government...if that doesn't work, then we will take military action - a coup d'etat," Zadi told the BBC.

Zadi is spokesman for a group of disgruntled military who say they back General Mathias Doue, who served as chief of staff of the Ivorian armed forces until he was dismissed late last year. Since then he has pledged to oust Gbagbo by any means.

"We are numerous, we are well equipped and we are well armed," Zadi told IRIN by telephone this week from a secret location. "The 30th is Gbagbo's leaving date, but it might not be then that we launch our action."