It would be one thing if the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) remained clueless of Laurent Gbagbo intentions, and paid him a visit to ascertain his final position. Feigning military might is sensible in this case, as ECOWAS had prepared to offer exile to Côte d'Ivoire’s embattled and disputed president. From the beginning, however, Gbagbo signaled no intention of stepping down.
And it didn’t take much skill to call ECOWAS’s bluff.
ECOWAS’s subsequent decision to back away from military force is both a gift and curse. While the group continues to deliberate force requirements and preparations, its appetite for invading Côte d'Ivoire is running justifiably low. William Fitzgerald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the State Department's Bureau African Affairs, told reporters that Gbagbo is, “making a lot of threats and I think he realizes that his time in office is limited and that the pressure's getting to him.”
But one Western diplomat following ECOWAS deliberations in Abuja, Nigeria told reporters, “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.”
Already stretched thin, ECOWAS would encounter the full spectrum of war in Côte d'Ivoire, from the state's conventional regular forces and police to Gbagbo’s unconventional units - the 1,000 member Republican Guard, his private militia “Young Patriots,” and political supporters who could form civilian cells. Liberian tribesmen/mercenaries are joining both sides.
ECOWAS would enter a hazardous environment to fight this complex war. Roughly the size of Vietnam, Gbagbo has threatened attacks on roughly half of Côte d'Ivoire’s 20 million people: challenger Alassane Ouattara’s supporters and millions of immigrants, particularly those from nations participating in the invasion. Some estimates account for 20% of Ivory Coast's population as immigrants, many of them Muslims in the north - Ouattara’s base.
He has relatively no power in the Christian south, Gbagbo’s stronghold, putting an international force at a great disadvantage to control government arteries in Abidjan. Any attempt to occupy the pseudo-capital could lead to wide-scale urban warfare.
Neither observers nor ECOWAS itself believes it possesses the capabilities for such a task, a comforting thought if only for a moment. Refusing to fight an unwinnable war is sound judgment. However Gbagbo also realized how foolish intervention would be, and the consequences of ECOWAS’s failed bluff have already begun to manifest.
“The question now is what will happen next?” said Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the United States. “What will we do next?” Whatever the strategy, it needs to happen fast.”
Reports are flying out of Côte d'Ivoire of night raids, potential mass graves, ethnic conflict, sporadic attacks on UN peacekeepers, media manipulation, and suppression of foreign journalists. At least 200 people have been killed, another 50+ missing, up to 30,000 fleeing to Liberia, numbers that rise in real time. Time noted a decrease in roadblocks, but most government installations and TV stations remain heavily fortified. At least 10 foreign journalists have been arrested in the past month, many more hearing warning shots from AK-47’s whistle past them.
Prices for food and basic necessities have tripled since the late November election.
But none of that is the immediate problem. With ECOWAS backing down, Gbagbo's “trusted enforcer” Charles Ble Goude, commander of the Young Patriots, threatened on Wednesday to storm the Golf hotel in Abidjan on Saturday. Ble Gloude’s self-stated goal is to “liberate the Golf Hotel with our bare hands,” where 800 UN peacekeeper currently guard Ouattara and his staff. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned, "Any attack against peacekeepers constitutes a crime under international law, for which the perpetrators and those who instigate them will be held accountable."
Why would Gbagbo believe him?
Telling an interview with Euronews that his exile wouldn’t “guarantee peace,” Gbagbo responded passive aggressively: “I do not think about a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue we could end up in a civil war, a confrontation.”
The situation calls for rapid planning and action. Neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara appear willing to step down or share power, an unsustainable stalemate in the fragile country. Negotiations are obviously preferable. Unfortunately ECOWAS and France, who Gbagbo accuses of orchestrating the whole plot against him, have left themselves little room to maneuver after playing the final card of military force. Now anything less is likely to leave Gbagbo in office, and encouraged by his staying power.
“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. “The stakes here are unusually high. Either Gbagbo loses everything, or it will be a tremendous loss of face for Ecowas.”
What happens over the weekend could jump-start ECOWAS’s urgency. Côte d’Ivoire is moving fast and an assault on the Golf Hotel would speed up the crisis. Simple exile of Ouattara could temporarily diffuse the situation, as his supporters stand little chance against Gbagbo’s security apparatus, though an insurgency could develop from the New Forces. Whether a new group evolves into full-blown civil war remains to be seen, however the possibility rises as the conflict drags on.
"We must act quickly,” said Ouattara after giving a New Year address to the nation. “We must learn from everything that has happened. It is time to act and get out of this situation.”
ECOWAS, the AU, and UN must press forward with a new strategy now that Gbagbo has dared them to attack. No side can afford to back down. As Côte d’Ivoire must learn, so too must Africa learn. Having risked all their credibility, both ECOWAS and the AU are painfully aware that the region’s future depends on Côte d’Ivoire’s fate, starting immediately with elections in Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Liberia.
"Beyond Cote d'Ivoire, the way this crisis will be solved will affect the future of democratic elections in Africa," says one Ivoirian executive who wished to remain anonymous. "The democratic process has to win."
But it’s not looking good so far.