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More on Côte d’Ivoire and the prospects for intervention

Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, center, meeting with West African leaders . . . Sia Kambou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, center, meeting with West African leaders . . . Sia Kambou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A previous post reported on recent development in Côte d’Ivoire. Today,  the New York Times reports:

On Wednesday, as the leaders of Ecowas, or the Economic Community of West African States, agreed to further negotiations with Mr. Gbagbo, their defense chiefs were meeting in Nigeria to discuss possible troop deployments, according to a Western diplomat there. Analysts argue that the group’s military capacities are limited and hampered by, among other things, the Gbagbo government’s veiled threats to retaliate against citizens of countries that intervene against Ivory Coast, where there is a large immigrant population.

To back down now would entail a significant loss of credibility for the international institutions and governments pressing Mr. Gbagbo, analysts contend. But the possibility of force has seemed equally unappealing to some African diplomats, particularly because Ivory Coast has already endured a civil war and there is little appetite for fueling another one.

When disputed elections spilled into violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe in recent years, many nations embraced political compromises that joined rivals into tense and sometimes unwieldy power-sharing agreements.

In this case, many African leaders themselves have said power sharing is off the table, rejecting the notion that Mr. Gbagbo should have a significant role in the government. At least five more elections are in the offing in the coming year in West Africa alone, and few want to enshrine a solution that allows recalcitrant leaders to hold onto power beyond their legitimate terms.

“There’s a strong sense here that if they let another wishy-washy power-sharing arrangement emerge in Côte d’Ivoire, it will create a very bad precedent,” said the Western diplomat in Abuja, Nigeria, where Ecowas is based, who was not authorized to discuss the matter. “The stakes here are unusually high. Either Gbagbo loses everything, or it will be a tremendous loss of face for Ecowas.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Gbagbo can play for time through negotiations and somehow split the coalition of nations urging him to leave, or whether the weight of sanctions and threat of military force will compel him to surrender.

So far, there is no sign of the latter. Just the opposite, Mr. Gbagbo has deployed his security forces in opposition neighborhoods, beating and killing dozens in nighttime raids, according to the United Nations.

He has also sent around his minister of youth, Charles Blé Goudé, known as the “General of the Streets,” to whip up popular fervor for an assault on the headquarters of his main rival, Alassane Ouattara, who has been declared the winner of the elections by the scores of countries of the United Nations General Assembly. On Wednesday, Mr. Blé Goudé urged a cheering crowd to “liberate” the hotel where Mr. Ouattara is holed up, protected by peacekeepers.

Mr. Gbagbo proclaimed last week on state television that the “international community has declared war” on Ivory Coast, and that he was merely upholding the country’s Constitution against intruders, including the United Nations. On Tuesday a United Nations convoy was attacked by machete-wielding partisans in a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood, and a Bangladeshi soldier was injured.

As long as Mr. Gbagbo commands the loyalty of the army, he will be difficult to dislodge, analysts say. A potential blow to his hold on power came last week when African leaders blocked his access to money at the regional West African bank, possibly limiting his ability to pay his soldiers. But the impact of even that is uncertain, since the move did not put all state funds in Ivory Coast — the world’s biggest cocoa exporter — beyond the reach of Mr. Gbagbo’s entourage.

“They think they’re Saudi Arabia, but they’re not; they have an obsession with autarky,” said Rinaldo Depagne, an International Crisis Group analyst who has studied Ivory Coast closely, describing the Gbagbo government’s belief in economic self-sufficiency.

“They say, ‘We’re rich.’ They are ultranationalists.”

Meanwhile, the principal pressure point on Mr. Gbagbo, Ecowas, is marching in new and uncertain territory. Although it has deployed military force in the past — in conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau — its previous interventions have been “geared towards ending civil wars,” not removing entrenched leaders, wrote Gilles Yabi, the new director of the International Crisis Group’s West Africa project, in a recent paper.

Mr. Gbagbo’s control over fiercely loyal elite units like the Republican Guard, a force of about 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers that has been central in the current wave of repression against opponents, would make him a tough match militarily.

“I really have trouble seeing how this would work,” Mr. Yabi said in an interview from Dakar, Senegal, on Wednesday. “There is no precedent.”

The Western diplomat in Abuja, who has been following the Ecowas deliberations closely, said: “The Ecowas standby force is something that exists only on paper. They would not be able to survive any kind of fight with Gbagbo’s forces.”

And then there is the question of stomach for the fight. “Ecowas has no desire for an offensive military operation,” Mr. Yabi said Wednesday.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.