By Jon Gambrell
LAGOS, Nigeria–The recognized winner of Ivory Coast’s presidential election wants foreign intervention to oust the man clinging to power but the country expected to lead such a mission, Nigeria, is preoccupied with terror attacks at home.
And troops from several other countries that might participate in the mission to restore democracy in Ivory Coast also have their hands full, meaning that it might be weeks if not longer before military action is launched, if it ever is.
Military forces in Niger, Mali and Mauritania are overstretched fighting al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, which has been kidnapping foreigners and vanishing with them into the Sahara desert.
More than a week after the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States vowed to consider military force in Ivory Coast, it remains unclear how that operation would come together and which countries would contribute troops. Defense chiefs from the region met in Nigeria, where ECOWAS is based, to strategize last week, but it appears no one plans an imminent attack.
“The question would be: ‘Why are you sending troops abroad to other countries when you can’t even fix your own?”’ said Antony Goldman, a Nigeria analyst and head of London-based firm PM Consulting.
Ivory Coast’s renegade leader Laurent Gbagbo has now twice rebuffed appeals from a high-level ECOWAS delegation urging him to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara. The U.N. endorsed results from the country’s electoral commission showing Ouattara won, but a Gbagbo ally overturned them by throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds.
ECOWAS and the African Union released a statement late Tuesday indicating that Gbagbo “agreed to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis without any preconditions.” But Gbagbo still had not relinquished power Tuesday and showed no sign of doing so.
Early on Tuesday morning, security forces surrounded the headquarters of a political party allied with Ouattara, and opened fire with automatic weapons, according to three witnesses including a woman living in a nearby building who saw the shooting from a balcony and a foreign diplomat who was awoken by the gunfire.
At least one person was killed and as many as 130 were arrested, said Simon Munzu, head of the U.N. human rights division in Ivory Coast who said his staff was barred from entering the building belonging to politician Henri Konan Bedie.
ECOWAS insisted on calling for Gbagbo to hand over power “without further delay.”
Analysts have questioned how quickly ECOWAS could mobilize a force and whether they could remove Gbagbo without a full-scale invasion resulting in heavy civilian casualties.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, remains the dominant military force in Africa. Its military, fueled by oil revenues, provided the majority of troops who entered Liberia in 1990 as part of an ECOWAS force. In 1998, Nigerian-led troops deposed the ruling junta of Sierra Leone. Nigerian forces also deployed to Sudan’s war-plagued Darfur region in 2004.
However, Nigeria now finds itself at a far weaker moment. President Goodluck Jonathan, who came to power after the death of the nation’s elected leader in May, remains preoccupied with running in the nation’s upcoming presidential election in April.
After meeting with Gbagbo on Monday, the presidents of Benin, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone flew to Nigeria to discuss Ivory Coast’s deepening political crisis with Jonathan on Tuesday. But he left the meeting in Abuja, the capital, for a campaign stop for a state gubernatorial candidate running in an election Thursday in the country’s oil-rich south.
Jonathan, a soft-spoken marine biologist, also lacks credibility with the armed forces in a nation with a long history of military dictators.
Nigeria has plenty of violence of its own to worry about: Christian churches in the north were attacked by members of a radical Muslim sect on Christmas Eve. An Internet posting attributed to the group also claimed responsibility for bombings that same day in central Nigeria that killed at least 32 people. Another bomb exploded near an army barracks in the capital on New Year’s Eve, killing as many as 30 people.
Jonathan told reporters Tuesday more time is needed to resolve the Ivory Coast standoff.
“Don’t expect that if there is a major crisis in a country, you just jump in in one week and the matter is resolved,” he said.
Help likely won’t come from the United Nations, at least in the short term. The U.N. does not have a standing army and depends on member states to supply troops for its peacekeeping missions, which are authorized by the U.N. Security Council with specific mandates. Deploying those troops usually takes months.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast has a mandate to protect civilians. To change that mandate to one that would authorize force against Gbagbo would require a new U.N. Security Council resolution, which would require approval by the five permanent members.
It also would need the consent of the troop-contributing countries, and analysts have warned that it’s unlikely countries would want to offer troops for what could be a full-scale invasion of Ivory Coast that could lead to street fighting.
The French government says its forces in Ivory Coast will protect French citizens but won’t be making any decisions about an international military intervention.
Analysts consider tiny Ghana the next strongest military force in ECOWAS. It remains unclear what weaponry and equipment the forces have immediately available, also whether radios used by the different forces would be able to communicate with each other.
Sonny Ugoh, an ECOWAS spokesman, said the bloc hasn’t determined what kind of troops or equipment it would need in a deployment. A military spokesman last week said plans on possibly using force in Ivory Coast would be ready sometime in mid-January.