by DAVID AXE
A smoldering civil conflict flared up in West Africa’s cocoa-rich Cote d’Ivoire following a disputed Nov. 28 presidential election. Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, representing the country’s south, contested the U.N.-certified victory of Alassane Ouattara, from the rebellious north. In 2002 and 2003, northern rebels and southern loyalists — also divided along ethnic lines — waged a bloody civil war, spurring the deployment of a currently 9,000-man U.N. peacekeeping force and lapsing into a tenuous peace.
The November election was meant to bolster the peace process, but in the wake of Ouattara’s widely-recognized victory, Gbagbo refused to cede power. Gbagbo’s security forces and allied armed groups have surrounded the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara and his lieutenants are protected by 800 U.N. troops and hundreds of loyal militia. Crackdowns on Ouattara supporters by government troops have killed a reported 200 people and wounded a thousand more.
“All dictators are alike and all dictators will not negotiate their departure — they are made to leave,” said Guillaume Soro, prime minister under Gbagbo and a Ouattara ally. But West African nations have been slow to use force. Despite an existing political framework and historical precedent for military intervention, Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbors prefer to negotiate for Gbagbo’s departure — a tactic that has not budged the stubborn, murderous incumbent. “The political option is the best,” said Nigerian army Col. Mohammed Yerima.
Besides the U.N., which already has troops on the ground, there are two main frameworks for regional military intervention. The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, of which Cote d’Ivoire is a member, has prepared intervention plans. But the plans are on hold pending further negotiation.
America’s only military response to the Cote d’Ivoire crisis has been to send in a small advisory team to help the U.S. ambassador prepare for the potential evacuation of American civilians from the country.
In the 1990s, ECOWAS deployed troops — Nigerians and Senegalese, mainly — in order to tamp down in civil conflict in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. The so-called ECOWAS Monitoring Group has come under fire for its shaky legal foundation (the ECOWAS treaty does not specify a military function) and for the dangers its troops pose to local civilians.
ECOMOG is one vehicle for West African intervention in Cote d’Ivoire. The other is the African Union. With significant U.N. and other international assistance, the A.U. has increasingly undertaken military missions in recent years — most notably in Somalia. The 5,000-man AMISOM mission in Mogadishu fields infantry and armor to defend the fragile, U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government from Islamic forces. But the A.U., perhaps soured on the seemingly endless Somalia combat, has voiced its preference for diplomacy in Cote d’Ivoire.
While ECOWAS and the A.U. waffle, the U.N. digs in at the Golf Hotel. U.N. troops and their militia allies would “repulse and defeat” any attack, U.N. Special Representative Y.J. Choi said. But outside the fortifications, the U.N. has identified several alleged mass graves containing the bodies of murdered Ouattara supporters. Soro said his country is in a “civil war situation.”
If either ECOWAS or the A.U. musters the will to intervene, it will likely rely on the Nigeria and Senegal — West Africa’s major powers — for troops. But Nigeria, for one, is already deeply embroiled in fighting on its own territory. In recent weeks, Nigeria has stepped up combat operations targeting rebels and smugglers in the country’s oil-rich delta region. Observers fear elections scheduled for January could further escalate violence in Nigeria. That could potentially diminish prospects for a large-scale intervention in Cote d’Ivoire.