US sees Ivory Coast crisis as test of regional democracy

AFP, Tuesday 28 Dec 2010

US is talking tough in the Ivory Coast political crisis, fretting over nearby West African neighbours’ stability

The United States is talking tough in the Ivory Coast political crisis, fretting over nearby West African neighbours’ stability, and over long-term credibility of democratic institutions in Africa.

The Barack Obama administration demanded very early that outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo step down after the international community recognized the election of his rival Alassane Ouattara.

Then the United States slapped unilateral sanctions on Gbagbo and his close associates. And it has thrown its support solidly behind efforts of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), the African Union and France, the former colonial power.

A year ago now, the United States got actively involved, along with France, to push out of power the head of the Guinean junta, Moussa Dadis Camara, to help the country out of its crisis.

Yet Guinea and Ivory Coast are countries where the US presence or US partnership is relatively small in scope unlike Nigeria, for example, which is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States.

Still, for Washington, defending the rule of law in these countries "really is a test of international governance broadly," said Jennifer Cooke, head of African programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When he met this year with African youths at a forum marking 50 years since the 1960 national independence wave in Africa, Obama urged them to become agents of change on the continent and to help democracy take root more deeply, slamming a generation of leaders who have tended to cling to power.

"There are probably 15 elections or more scheduled for next year in Africa, not to mention the Sudanese referendum," Cooke explained.

So if the United States did not act firmly on Ivory Coast, "if such a flagrant violation can stand, it really makes a mockery of the Obama administration's emphasis in democracy, and undermines, not only African but American interests as well in the long run," she added.

In the Ivory Coast crisis "there's a whole fragile region around it that the international community including the United States has made a big investment in securing," said Cooke.

In the conflict spreads to places like Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, it could becomes "a very bad mess," Cooke added.

And the United States did not wait for the Ivorian crisis to watch the region closely, stressed John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria.

"US interests in West Africa range from (combatting) narco-trafficking to international terrorism," he told AFP.

Campbell described the influence drug traffickers have amassed in several states in the region, as well as the struggle against the influence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Acting on so many cross-border issues the United States cooperates more closely than ever with France. Some of the diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks bear that out.

Washington also is working on deepening its contacts with the African Union. A first session of the new dialogue was held earlier this year in Washington and is supposed to be held every year.

The United States meanwhile also signed three strategic bilateral partnership agreements with Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. Both Angola and Nigeria are oil powers, and Nigeria and South Africa are key subregional powers.

Still, it is not all about oil, insists Campbell. "Nigeria has been an important diplomatic partner in efforts to end military dictatorships in West Africa and to cooperate in advancing the rule of law," he said.

What's more, it is the "largest contributor of peacekeepers to the UN and AU" in Africa.

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