COTE D'IVOIRE: Soro meets Gbagbo, opposes multiple referendum
Abidjan, 13 January 2004 (IRIN) - President Laurent Gbagbo met rebel leader Guillaume Soro at the presidential palace on Monday night to discuss the way forward in Cote d'Ivoire's fragile peace process following the rebels' return to a broad-based government of national reconciliation.
It was the first meeting between the two men since the rebels, who occupy the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire, withdrew from the cabinet on 23 September in protest at Gbagbo's delays in implementing a French-brokered peace agreement in full.
The rebels, who are officially known as "The New Forces," announced their return to government on 22 December and most of the rebel ministers resumed their seats in the cabinet last week.
However, Soro, who holds the post of Communications Minister, was only due to rejoin the cabinet at its next meeting on Wednesday.
The rebel leader said after his hour-long talk with Gbagbo: "I am here to show Ivorians our determination and our will to make peace and to undertake national reconciliation. But it is up to each one of us to act in all sincerity and openness so that we move towards a durable peace in Cote d'Ivoire,"
Soro, a former student leader, went on to express his disagreement with Gbagbo's plan to hold a referendum on all three key law reforms provided for by the 24 January 2003 Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement.
Only one of these reforms, a constitutional ammendment to make it easier for Ivorians who have a foreign parent, is required by the constitution to be ratified by a referendum.
The other two reforms; a law to make it easier for West African immigrants to Cote d'Ivoire and their offspring to get Ivorian nationality, and a law to make it easier for such immigrants to gain full ownership of the land they farm and hand it on to their heirs, need only be approved by parliament.
However, Gbagbo has used his extensive powers to bypass the legislature and refer the approval of these measures directly to a referendum instead.
Commenting on this move, Soro told reporters: "The government of national reconciliation does not have on its agenda the organisation of several referendums. There is just one referendum which concerns the elegibility to be president of the republic."
Soro added: “We think a good re-reading of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement would allow all the Ivorian political stakeholders to agree that there can not be several referenda.”
Before Cote d'Ivoire plunged into civil war in September 2002, about 26 percent of its 15.3 million people were immigrants from neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and other West African countries or their descendents, according to the official statistics of the 1998 census.
There has been a debate over the right of these people to gain full citizenship rights and assume ownership of the land they till since the early 1990's. Measures taken to restrict these rights in recent years caused sharp divisions in the country that eventually led to civil war.
The issue came to a head when Gbagbo won the 2000 presidential election from which Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister, was excluded. He was barred from standing after the authorities ruled that he had failed to prove that both his parents were Ivorian.
Last week UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the Security Council to approve the dispatch of 6,240 UN peacekeepers to Cote d'Ivoire to supervise a disarmament programme later this year and maintain security during the run-up to general elections due in October 2005.
But Annan said the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force should be conditional on both the Gbagbo and the rebels making "sufficient progress" to fully implement the Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement by 4 February.
Albert Tevoedjre, the UN special envoy to Cote d'Ivoire, has hinted publicly that Gbagbo should not insist on a referendum for all three of the proposed law reforms.