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Does ECOWAS have the will and muscle for military intervention?

The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has threatened to use force to oust incumbent Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo. But the military option could have dramatic and unforeseen consequences for the country and the region.


The West African regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has threatened an armed intervention if mediation efforts to resolve the political crisis in Ivory Coast fail. But while ECOWAS has intervened in much smaller countries in the past, the situation in Ivory Coast poses new challenges not just for the regional grouping, but for the entire continent.

The current political crisis in the world’s leading cocoa producing nation broke out after the Nov. 28, 2010, presidential runoff, when the international community recognised Alassane Ouattara as the winner, a result incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to acknowledge.

Ghanian president wants to "remain neutral" and support democratic ideals in Ivory Coast

At an extraordinary session on Christmas Eve, ECOWAS issued a communiqué stating that if Gbagbo refused to relinquish power, it would have “no other option but to take all the necessary measures, including the use of legitimate force, to realize the aspirations of the Ivorian people."

But does ECOWAS have the means to carry out its threat?

"A military intervention is feasible,” said Rinaldo Depagne, a Senegal-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “ECOWAS has quite significant resources in terms of men and material."

ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) – which is the multilateral armed force established by ECOWAS – has intervened in regional crises in the past.

Established in 1990 to intervene in the civil war in Sierra Leone, ECOMOG has numbered up to 20,000 troops at its maximum. Besides the Sierra Leonean mission, ECOWAS has also intervened in the 1989-1996 Liberian Civil War.

Deployment within a relatively short period

To launch a military operation in Ivory Coast, ECOWAS should get the green light from the African Union and UN.

For ECOWAS, this would be an unprecedented intervention.

Not only were Sierra Leone and Liberia much smaller countries, they were also nations where the governments in place requested the help of foreign troops.

The organization could deploy troops to the main Ivorian city of Abidjan within a relatively short period, said Henry Boshoff of the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria in an interview with the BBC.

"When the political decision is made, it will go to the chief of staff of ECOWAS – that is the military command,” said Boshoff. "They will then do the planning, they will ask then for troop-contributing countries to contribute the force, they will decide on the concept operation – how many troops – and then the readiness of the troops."

This could be done as in three to four weeks, Boshoff told the BBC.

The likelihood of military intervention in the near future remains subject to many other factors. While Senegal, Nigeria and Burkina Faso are more amenable to troop deployments, other West African nations are more reluctant.

Selling a foreign intervention to a sceptical home crowd

Traditionally neutral Ghana, for instance, has already said it would not send troops to Ivory Coast.

The Gambia, a tiny nation geographically surrounded by Senegal, is also opposed to the idea of military action – but it has only minor weight within ECOWAS.

As a West African economic powerhouse, Ivory Coast is home to a number of immigrants from neighbouring nations and Mali, Guinea and Benin, which have many citizens in Ivory Coast, fear a retaliation against their citizens in the case of an intervention.

Gbagbo himself has repeatedly warned that a military intervention would destablize the region.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24, his rival, Ouattara, dismissed such fears. “Military intervention does not mean that the Ivory Coast will ignite,” said Ouattara, before adding: “All that needs to be done, as has been done in other African countries, is to come and get Gbagbo and remove him from the presidential palace.”

Nigeria, the most populous state in the West African regional grouping, is widely expected to supply the bulk of the forces for an Ivorian mission since it has the largest and most powerful army in the region.

But Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who is also the current ECOWAS chairman, has domestic problems ahead of the country’s critical April general election.

Nigerians are keenly aware of the lack of infrastructure and development besetting their own country and returning body bags is always a tricky issue for candidates on the campaign trail.

While there has been a broad trend toward democratic elections in the region, some member states still have longstanding “Big Men” leaders with questionable democratic credentials. The hypocrisy of dispatching troops to defend a dubiously elected African leader is not lost on local citizens.

‘A well organized military machine’

If ECOWAS does agree to dispatch troops to Abidjan, a teeming, skyscraper-lined city of six million, it will invariably be a high-risk operation.

During the ECOMOG missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the governments were besieged by rebels, but they had control of sea and airports, where ECOWAS military units could land.

In an interview with the AFP, Retired Gen. Ishola Williams, executive secretary of the Pan-African Strategic and Policy Research Group, categorically maintained that it “will not work”.

An intervention would be "dangerous because Laurent Gbagbo is not hanging by a thin thread,” says Depagne. "He has access to a well organized military machine. He also has a substantial portion of the population supporting him."

In December, the Ivorian chief of staff, Gen. Philippe Mangou, accompanied by a group of generals, pledged their allegiance to Gbagbo.

If the unity of the Ivorian armed forces were to waver in case of a conflict, Gbagbo could always count on the unwavering support of elite units, which include several thousand troops.

In 2005, Gbagbo created the Command Centre for Security Operations, which goes by the French acronym Cecos, which has 600 men who are officially responsible for fighting crime. But in reality, their only mission is to protect the regime.

For his part, Gbagbo’s controversial Youth Minister Charles Blé Goudé, also known as Gbagbo’s “Street General,” controls the Young Patriots, which is comprised of thousands of mostly young Gbagbo supporters who played a critical role in the anti-foreigner riots during the 2004-2006 Ivorian Civil War. In the event of a military intervention, Blé Goudé is very likely to mobilize the Young Patriots, which has turned into an armed militia infamous for violence and looting.

‘The nightmare scenario’

For Depagne, "the nightmare scenario” would be if an ECOWAS military intervention sparked a war between the New Forces rebel group led by Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro and the Ivorian armed forces with thousands of Liberian mercenaries joining whichever side best pays them.

During the 2002-2004 crisis, more than 10,000 Liberians participated in the Ivorian conflict. “This scenario would result in many refugees fleeing northward,” warns Depagne.

Because of Ivory Coast’s economic and political weight, a war could have considerable repercussions on neighbouring countries – including Liberia and Guinea – and could result in a game of dominoes throughout the region.

"The intervention could also lead to the emergence of micro rebellions in some parts of the country and the destruction of the economy. If Alassane Ouattara’s goal is to be able to observe the legality of the vote, he must also take into consideration the fact that the country must be governable,” concludes Depagne.


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