A threat by West African leaders to oust Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo by force remains fraught with logistical hurdles that are likely to delay any such operation, even if politicians muster the will to approve action.
Unlike previous interventions, when forces were called in to fend off rebel attacks, West African soldiers would have to mount an invasion and, even if successful, would then have to contain likely popular anger from Gbagbo’s supporters.
A contested election has left the world’s top cocoa grower paralysed, with Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara both claiming to have won. World leaders have recognised Ouattara as president-elect but Gbagbo, who retains the support of the army and is popular in the main city, Abidjan, refuses to step down, Reuters reports.
After two rounds of talks that yielded little but vague promises of further dialogue, ECOWAS leaders said the option of military action to remove Gbagbo remained on the table but they favoured a peaceful solution, “even if there is a half percent chance”.
“There are a lot of questions hanging over a military intervention. It is not so clear cut as just going in and pushing him out,” said Henri Boshoff, head of the peace mission programme at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.
“Although ECOWAS has been deployed previously, it was a completely different situation. Civil war had already started,” he said, citing operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In those cases, a regional force known as ECOMOG was able to land soldiers and equipment by sea and at airports still under government control to help fight off rebel attacks.
Boshoff said ECOWAS has a 1,500-strong rapid reaction force and a further main force of 4,000 but regional military planners would have to work out where and how the force would enter the country before taking on a national army.
Rebels who seized the north of Ivory Coast in the 2002-3 war have back Ouattara, but Gbagbo controls the south.
“Will any country want to send troops into an urban centre like Abidjan and potentially confront a stand-up national army?” asked a Nigerian analyst, who asked not to be named.
Some say the financial squeeze on Gbagbo through aid cuts and the recognition of his rival by the regional central bank could sap his support in the military until a serious regional force could rout a small core of Gbagbo loyalists.
But, even by the count that handed Ouattara victory, Gbagbo won more than 45 percent of the vote, mostly in the south around Abdijan, so there would likely be popular discontent, fed by nationalist, anti-foreigner rhetoric.
“My concern is basically unrest in the streets … Who is going to quell the riot?” Boshoff said. “They (Gbagbo’s supporters) can mobilise the masses. Countries are concerned about their own people.”
Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal – countries that are likely to be the core of any force, have millions of their own citizens in Ivory Coast and fear reprisals. Thousands of French nationals were evacuated in 2004 after they were attacked by mobs.
DEPENDENCE ON NIGERIA
Nigeria also has its own presidential election in April, another likely delaying factor. “Nigeria is just not in a position to be able to do anything at least until after the elections,” said the Nigerian analyst.
“They cannot do anything without Nigeria. Nigeria provides the logistical backbone and most of the men.” Boshoff said any ECOWAS intervention would have to receive outside support, probably from the United States, through Africom, Washington’s military command for Africa.
Former colonial power France has some 900 soldiers in Ivory Coast and a number of military ships nearby. But, wary of being accused of neo-colonial meddling, President Nicolas Sarkozy said this week their role is to protect about French 15,000 nationals and not to interfere in internal affairs.
Talk of further dialogue, rather than ultimatums for Gbagbo to leave power, after the this week’s mediation mission highlighted the dilemma facing ECOWAS, which has won praise for taking a firm stance but may struggle to carry out its threat.
“The most obvious reason for this is that ECOWAS is unable to follow through on the threat of intervention,” said Rolake Akinola, an analyst at VoxFrontier.
“Force is always going to be a last resort, but what about the consequences of an intervention and the massive fallout for the entire region, the civilian crisis that would ensue. ECOWAS is perhaps not willing or able to handle this.”