Two weeks ago Philip Crowley found himself face to face with a deceptively simple question: why Côte d'Ivoire? Those quarters that continue to support Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s disputed president, can answer quickly enough - a Western plot. The State Department spokesman, however, started to draw blanks as reporters zeroed on their query.
Why must Gbagbo cede office when Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, considered the more tyrannical ruler, was offered a favorable power-sharing agreement after a systematically violent 2008 election? And why is Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who accepted his own power-sharing agreement after a turbulent 2007 election, preparing the ground for force while attempting to mediate the dispute?
“Why don’t you call for – I don’t understand – this is hypocrisy.”
Crowley’s reply: “Well, quite simply, the results of the election were clear.”
Tell this to the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, whose 48% of the vote beat out Mugabe’s 43% by the admission of Zimbabwe’s own electoral commission. With reason to believe he secured the necessary 50% threshold and no reason to trust Mugabe’s apparatus, Tsvangirai boycotted the runoff and lost by 80%. The ensuing power-sharing agreement, brokered by South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), was implemented nearly a year later after countless delays. Mugabe continues to wield the security establishment and promote “land reform” - “war veterans” seizing farms.
Thus accepting Mugabe and opposing Gbagbo may well appear a gross display of hypocrisy.
Geopolitics may be a better explanation though, cold as it is. Although the conditions inside the two countries share similarities, the external conditions surrounding Zimbabwe and Côte d'Ivoire diverge widely. Mugabe had already isolated himself in Zimbabwe; the election’s results, while providing the latest example of an African dictator evading the international community, weren’t feared to spark regional unrest. The West applied sanctions as standard procedure, but military force was never truly considered.
Add in Mugabe’s personal relations with Southern African leaders, and the SADC predetermined a power-sharing agreement.
Gbagbo, on the other hand, encountered immediate resistance from the African Union (AU) and regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is desperate to prove its credibility. Odinga, the AU’s chief mediator in the crisis, opened at his bottom-line by calling for force. Some chalk this up to Western pressure, and to be fair Alassane Ouattara is a prototypical Western insider. Yet America and Europe similarly opposed Mugabe.
Northern Africa is entering a year of political flux, an explanation that offers a solid base to stand on. With Sudan’s referendum just getting ready to shake out and a dozen elections on the horizon, African and Western states have reached a consensus on Gbagbo. Though violent and unpredictable, Mugabe is relatively contained. Gbagbo is the domino that cannot be allowed to fall.
But Zimbabwe and Côte d'Ivoire do have one glaring connection: Africa and the West may flame out on both.
After hearing his thoughts on removing Gbagbo by force, it’s doubtful that Ouattara’s supporters voted for the economist’s military acumen. One can easily imagine his urge to free himself of the Golf Hotel, where Gbagbo’s security forces have barricaded him since December. Missing Christmas with his family, Ouattara has been forced to watch government security forces crackdown on his supporters in favorable districts of Abidjan.
Ouattara has repeatedly stated, "We have come to the point where I seriously believe that force should be used to remove Mr. Gbagbo.” More perplexing, he often adds that it can be done “relatively easily.”
"I know Mr. Gbagbo,” he explained last week. “If he sees that ECOWAS troops are coming to capture him, believe me he will start running away. I know him well. He does not have the courage to face those type of situations.”
Considering that Gbagbo has yet to run away, he may simply refuse to believe in ECOWAS’s threats. If so he can’t be accused of miscalculating, as most observers doubt ECOWAS’s capacity to remove Gbagbo and pacify the country. But Gbagbo has steadfastly resisted from the beginning, indicating that he’s resolved to battle ECOWAS forces on his own territory. Pacifying the Ouattara-friendly north could be automatic, but securing Gbagbo’s southern territory and Abidjan, a city of 5,000,000, requires tens of thousands of highly-trained soldiers. Probably more.
ECOWAS doesn’t have these troops, nor can it fulfill their support requirements.
Instead of an easy fight, ECOWAS and its foreign reinforcements will enter a bloody contest with serious potential to protract. Gbagbo will oppose an invasion through layers of conventional and unconventional fronts. Philippe Mangou, the head of the army, recently legitimized attacks on Ouattara supporters and UN peacekeepers by citing attacks on government forces. Declaring war, he sounds ready to oppose any foreign aggression.
"In order to find these people attacking the republic inside their hiding places, the armed forces of Ivory Coast want all human rights organizations, as well as the national and international community to know that that these attacks against us are equal to acts of war... putting us in a position of legitimate self-defense."
Ouattara, the UN, and human rights groups have accused the government of violently suppressing the opposition movement.
Meanwhile Charles Ble Goude, leader of the zealous Young Patriots militia, holds pro-Gbagbo rallies on a daily basis. Having already threatened to remove Ouattara from the Golf Hotel, the media-savvy Goude told the Associated Press, "They shouldn't kid themselves and imagine that they can come and remove him... Because in every Ivorian there is a Gbagbo. Do they want to govern an Ivory Coast cemetery?"
ECOWAS’s hesitation indicates that they, unlike Ouattara, aren’t kidding themselves. That Gbagbo resides in every Ivorian is typical propaganda - Goude’s military threat isn’t. Threatening “no peace” if Gbagbo was removed, its likely that ECOWAS and Western forces will encounter a third layer of resistance in Gbagbo’s civilian supporters, possibly organized by Goude and others of like mind.
Much like African and Western forces would have found had they stormed Zimbabwe.
Delaying a military campaign has only increased ECOWAS’s disadvantages. Though invoking just war theory by arguing force as a last resort, this noble sentiment is diminished next to ECOWAS’s inability to launch a realistic assault. Côte d'Ivoire is likely transiting three phases. During the crisis’s initial stage, surprise would have served as ECOWAS’s main weapon; now it’s lost that advantage. The current middle phase is witnessing two trends moving in opposite directions: Gbagbo’s mobilization and ECOWAS’s waffling.
Barring a reconfiguration of these trends, Gbagbo will outlast ECOWAS and the West’s political and financial pressure. He may not be able to survive indefinitely, and could lose the military's support without regular pay, so perhaps his opponents are willing to starve him out over a period of months or years. But Ouattara won’t find any easy path to power within any foreign-induced security vacuum - only a fervent insurgency.
Gbagbo, through denying ECOWAS representatives and offering diversionary negotiations with Ouattara, has made clear that force is the only means to removing him. By falling back on the argument of last-resort, ECOWAS is retreating from Odinga’s “bottom-line.”