Doubts over ECOWAS intervention in I.Coast

AFP, Monday 17 Jan 2011

Diplomats are expressing doubt over the number of troops ECOWAS is threatening to send into the troubled nation

Gbagbo supporters
Supporters of Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo attend a rally at the Culture Palace in Abidjan 15 Jan. 2011. The European Union raised pressure on Saturday on Laurent Gbagbo to step down, freezing assets of the West African country's cocoa-exporting ports, its state oil firm and three banks. (Reuters)

The Ivory Coast crisis is entering a key week with the UN Security Council set to vote Tuesday to send up to 2,000 extra peace keepers to the troubled nation, while defence chiefs from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are to discuss potential action at a meeting starting Wednesday.

ECOWAS threatened military intervention soon after Gbagbo refused to let presidential election winner Alassane Ouattara take office. Some diplomats say however that the West African bloc will need up to 20,000 troops to be credible and so far there is little sign of that number being found.

"Ivory Coast's African neighbours have been very firm," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo have been most resolute, the official added. "These countries are ready to contribute to military action."

"There has been a mobilisation because if Gbagbo manages to stay in power this will send a very bad signal to the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. But there are questions," said another UN diplomat.

Ghana's President John Atta Mills has said however that his country will not take sides in the crisis in the neighbouring Ivory Coast and opposed the use of force to remove Gbagbo.

"Some of us believe in diplomacy in solving problems rather than military intervention," Ghana's leader said last week. Angola has also spoken against military intervention.

Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation, would likely be expected to provide the bulk of a regional military deployment. But it has national elections in April when troops will be needed as the country struggles with unrest in various parts of the country.

South Africa is now on the UN Security Council and some diplomats say it could be among nations who might refuse to approve a military operation, along with Russia, China and Brazil.

But ECOWAS would not need UN Security Council approval to legally send troops into Ivory Coast as Ouattara is the almost universally recognized president and he has called for force.

While nearly all Western countries say it was important for ECOWAS to take an aggressive stance to put pressure on Gbagbo, the numbers required have made it difficult for the group to follow through, diplomats said.

"The figure we are hearing so far for an ECOWAS force of just a few thousand is not enough. It would not be credible against Gbagbo. They would need at least 20,000 troops," said one diplomat.

"Personally I think such an adventure is unlikely," said John Campbell, an expert on African policy at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and a former US ambassador to Nigeria. "There is a lack of capacity.

"In the past such operations have proven very long and expensive and I suspect Mr Gbagbo knows this is not feasible."

Robert Herman of the Freedom House also said that the West African nations "lack the firepower" as well as the political precedent for such an operation. "My guess is no, they don't have the means."

Ouattara could get greater help from the Ivory Coast military, if Gbagbo cannot find the means to pay them.

For now the national army has stayed loyal to the man who has ruled Ivory Coast since before an uprising in 2002 that divided the country for several years. But the main West African central bank has cut off his funds and Gbagbo's main source of finance is now fees from the huge port in Abidjan.

Ouattara and his international allies are known to be looking at ways to divert those fees, diplomats said.

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