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Briefing on AU and ECOWAS

Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President of Nigeria
President Goodluck Jonathan – Nigeria would be key in any military intervention (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz )

IRIN has produced a series of briefings exploring the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire triggered by contested elections in November 2010.

With both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara laying claim to the presidency, the bitter political divisions in the country have led to worsening violence. While regional and international bodies have repeatedly called on Gbagbo to step down, neither sanctions nor mediation initiatives have come close to breaking the deadlock. Gbagbo and Ouattara head rival administrations, both trying to maximize their resources and isolate the other party. IRIN’s series of revised briefings takes a look at the handling of the crisis by the UN, regional bodies the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), western governments, and the European Union (EU), while also looking at the economic, human rights and humanitarian consequences of the breakdown.

The AU - the panel and the peacemakers

Two months after the second round of voting in Côte d'Ivoire (28 November 2010) ended with disputed results and a dangerous political stand-off, the AU has given itself one month to examine the crisis and come up with concrete recommendations, entrusting the immensely complicated Ivoirian dossier to five heads of state. President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz of Mauritania heads the panel, working with Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Idriss Déby of Chad, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania. Zimbabwean press reports of President Robert Mugabe being nominated were rapidly denied.

Fifteen of 20 AU designated experts arrived in Abidjan on 6 February to examine the elections and their aftermath. Headed by Algerian Ramtane Lamamra, head of the AU’s Commission for Peace and Security (CPS) and former AU envoy to Liberia and Algerian Ambassador to Washington, the team met both Ouattara and Gbagbo, along with religious leaders before flying out on 10 February. The five leaders are expected to meet in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 20 February.

Like ECOWAS, the AU appeared at the outset to be firmly united behind Ouattara. The AU’s initial statements in the aftermath of the elections unequivocally backed Ouattara and requested Gbagbo to step down. At the AU summit in Addis Ababa at the end of January, President of the AU Commission Jean Ping said the objective now was "to enable Ouattara to exercise power". Ping told reporters: "I'm confident we will succeed with dialogue more than with the use of force." Meeting prior to the summit, the AU's Council for Peace and Security reiterated the AU's view that Ouattara was the elected president, deplored continuing human rights violations and the obstruction of the UN's activities and mandated the group of five leaders, assisted by a team of advisers, to come up with a solution.

As the AU experts held a series of meetings in Abidjan, clear tactical differences within the continental and regional bodies were brought into the open by the head of ECOWAS’s political commission, veteran Ghanaian diplomat Victor Gbeho. Speaking in Abuja, Nigeria, Gbeho warned of a lack of unity in the approach towards the Ivoirian crisis. “The concern we have is that apart from some geo-political interests by some countries, there are others that are encouraging Gbagbo not to leave,” he said. “Because of certain individual interests, some countries have decided to break the tradition of solidarity in ECOWAS. What is happening is a matter of serious concern to ECOWAS and the international community, as certain countries have taken sides.” Gbeho warned that any dialogue in Côte d’Ivoire had “to be based on the wishes of the Ivoirian people”.
Gbeho accused South Africa of stationing a warship in Côte d’Ivoire’s coastal waters, “apparently in anticipation of any military action”. The South African Defence Ministry said the SAS Drakensberg was a supply vessel undertaking a routine training operation in West Africa.

What progress has been made?

The AU's own diplomatic input has produced little so far. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki featured for a second time as Africa's mediator-in-chief for Côte d'Ivoire, visiting Abidjan on 5 December. But having failed to secure a meeting between Gbagbo and Ouattara, Mbeki stepped out of the picture, making way for Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The Odinga chapter

Odinga visited Abidjan twice, once accompanying the ECOWAS delegation, then on an individual mission. Having spoken out clearly in favour of a rapid, military solution prior to being named mediator, Odinga's neutrality was quickly brought into question by Gbagbo' supporters. His second mission ended on 19 January with a blunt admission of failure. Odinga appealed to Ouattara to provide Gbagbo with concrete security guarantees in the future, while H3ly criticizing Gbagbo for breaking a pledge to lift the blockade of the Golf Hotel, the Abidjan headquarters for Ouattara and his ministerial team. Odinga was declared persona non grata by Gbagbo’s “foreign minister”, Alcide Djédjé, who accused the AU mediator of “having failed in his mission” and showing a ‘superficial’ understanding of the reality in Côte d’Ivoire. Odinga’s mediation role now appears to be over, ending ingloriously at the AU summit in Addis Ababa where the Kenyan premier reportedly infuriated the AU hierarchy by holding a press conference on his Abidjan mission before briefing the AU’s CPS.

Outgoing AU President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi visited Abidjan on 25 January, just before completing his term.

Mutharika has since made way for Teodoro Obian Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. Nguema has been in power since August 1979 and has long been targeted by human rights organizations for his government’s record of abuses. In the last elections held in Equatorial Guinea, Nguema won with 97 percent of the vote. Nguema hosted separate visits from the two rival Ivoirian prime ministers in January, Gilbert Até Ngbo, Gbagbo’s nominee, and Ouattara’s choice, the internationally-recognized Guillaume Soro.

Prospects for the panel

The five-member panel has been given a month to look at the situation in Côte d’Ivoire and work out a solution. The panel’s chair, Mauritania’s Mohamed Abdel Ould Aziz, was exposed to AU sanctions himself after staging a coup in August 2008, but was rehabilitated after re-introducing democracy and winning elections judged by observers to have been relatively free and fair in July 2009.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has backed the AU position in his statements on Côte d’Ivoire, arguing that the onus is on Gbagbo to quit and that “Tanzania cannot back a leader who refuses to hand over power after losing elections.”

Jacob Zuma of South Africa has avoided taking a high profile on Côte d’Ivoire, but has been markedly more equivocal than some of his peers, observing that: “we need to do something to help the situation and don't demand that one leader should go.” Former mediator Thabo Mbeki has also hinted that the AU and international community were too quick to endorse Ouattara and stigmatize Gbagbo, undermining their hopes of dialogue.

AU panel member Idriss Déby hosted a visit by Gbagbo in June 2006, with the two leaders pledging to establish embassies and set up a joint commission looking at arms trafficking, air links and economic and technical cooperation. Gbagbo H3ly backed Déby in his efforts to see off a then serious rebel threat. Déby’s critical attitude towards both the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) and the long-standing French military presence on Chadian territory suggest considerable common ground with Gbagbo.

The choice of Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso for the panel triggered a fierce reaction from Gbagbo supporters and was the focus of a mass demonstration in Abidjan on 5 February. The Jeunes Patriotes and other Gbagbo loyalists regard Compaoré as having been complicit in the original insurgency staged by the Forces Nouvelles in September 2002, H3ly allied to Ouattara before and after the elections and now working through ECOWAS to prepare the ground for a military solution. Gbagbo loyalists have warned they will not allow Compaoré into the country.

Compaoré, who helped broker the Ouagadougo Peace Accord between the Forces Nouvelles and the Gbagbo government in March 2007, visited both Paris and London in January, meeting French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

What has been the position of ECOWAS on the crisis?

Founded in 1975 by the Treaty of Lagos, ECOWAS promotes sub-regional integration among its 15 members, and its protocols include a common approach to peace and security.

ECOWAS reacted quickly to the post-electoral breakdown in Côte d’Ivoire and came out firmly in support of Ouattara’s election, which was firmly endorsed at an extraordinary summit in Abuja on 7 December, attended by seven heads of state. The summit suspended Côte d’Ivoire from all ECOWAS decision-making bodies and appealed to Gbagbo “to yield power without delay”. Ten heads of state attended a follow-up summit in Abuja on 24 December, described Ouattara’s position as “non-negotiable”, and backed the imposition of sanctions against Gbagbo. The final communiqué warned of the possible “use of legitimate force” if Gbagbo refused to quit.

Seeking a solution – the diplomatic track

ECOWAS set up a high-level delegation to take on the Côte d’Ivoire mediation dossier, designating three heads of state from the region: Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone, and Yayi Boni of Benin.

The three leaders were all voted into office in internationally recognized elections, while all hail from countries with no direct frontiers with Côte d’Ivoire.

The president of the ECOWAS Commission, Victor Gbeho, has also been part of the mediation initiative. The ECOWAS delegation visited Abidjan twice in the space of a week in December-January, accompanied by AU mediator Odinga on the second mission, meeting both Gbagbo and Ouattara.

An ECOWAS communiqué issued from Abuja on 4 January hinted at a possible dialogue between Ouattara and Gbagbo and raised unrealistic expectations about the prospects for peace. It is not clear whether the three-president team is still in place.

A sub-meeting of ECOWAS leaders at the AU summit in Addis Ababa discussed Côte d’Ivoire, with Gbeho again stressing there was no question of legitimizing Gbagbo.

The military option – still on the table?

ECOWAS heads of state have called for a road map for “the use of legitimate force” in the event of Gbagbo disregarding the demands of regional leaders to hand over power to Ouattara. But two meetings of ECOWAS chiefs of defence staff - in Abuja 28-29 December and Bamako 18-20 January - have sent out contradictory signals, suggesting no real regional consensus on military strategy.

The Bamako meeting produced misleading reports that intervention plans had already been greenlighted. But statements from senior ECOWAS military personnel, including the chairman of the ECOWAS Chiefs of Defence Staff, Nigerian Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin, were cautious. On Côte d’Ivoire, Petinrin said the ECOWAS military “has the responsibility to ensure that normalcy is restored and sustained... as soon as practicable”.

What is the military capability of ECOWAS?

Even if ECOWAS leaders have the political will to push for intervention, there are numerous challenges to address. In principle, ECOWAS has a 6,500-standby force to draw on. “Most countries in ECOWAS have already contributed troops to this force”, Petinrin confirmed in Bamako. But the force’s composition and structure are still not clear. Organizing an intervention will be difficult in terms of logistics and funding, while rumours of external assistance (particularly from France and the USA) have brought criticism that ECOWAS has surrendered its independence and taken collective positions that do not reflect its members’ interests and concerns.

Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Benin and Niger all contributed troops to Ecoforce, the force deployed by ECOWAS in Côte d'Ivoire in 2003 after the Linas-Marcoussis peace accords signed by the government and Forces Nouvelles.

Ecoforce troops were subsequently incorporated into the peacekeeping force established as part of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). While Ecoforce was handicapped by a late arrival, limited funding and logistical problems, the operation was seen to have learned from challenging past experiences in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bisssau. Until recently, the same five countries that made up Ecoforce had over 400 personnel in UNOCI serving in different parts of Côte d’Ivoire.

Who is pushing for force?

The fiercest supporter of an armed intervention has been Ouattara’s prime minister, Guillaume Soro. Addressing the press in Ouagadougou on 1 February, Soro argued that Gbagbo would try to outmanoeuvre the Panel of Five and was effectively using blackmail by warning military intervention would provoke a war.

Soro said military action could be reduced to a small-scale, localized operation, which would not cause serious damage to Côte d’Ivoire. Soro’s arrival in Burkina Faso came after visits to Togo, Niger, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial-Guinea, Zambia and South Africa among other states.

Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria have been frequently identified as ECOWAS members ready to endorse the use of force, but have been careful in their official pronouncements. Speaking in Paris on 18 January, Compaoré stressed military intervention was a last resort, but played down fears about dangers to Burkinabe and other West African communities should there be a conflict in Côte d’Ivoire.

Writing in the Nigerian newspaper, This Day, Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobi warned: “It is clear that Gbagbo is determined to defy and treat the entire international community with absolute disdain. He cannot, he must not be allowed to prevail.” But this warning also came with a caveat that military intervention was a last resort. Nigerian military sceptics have pointed out the high human and material costs of previous ECOWAS operations, hinting that Nigeria would have to shoulder the costs of other countries’ troop deployments. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) has come out H3ly against intervention. Its president, Otunba Femi Deru, argued that “the economy has enough challenges at the moment.” With elections pending, President Goodluck Jonathan will also be wary of lending support to an intervention requiring too much of Nigerians.

Ghanaian President John Atta-Mills has ruled out any Ghanaian involvement in a military force, arguing that Ghanaian forces are already spread too thinly because of Ghana’s support for other peacekeeping operations.

Liberian leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, whose government is coping with the continuing influx of refugees from western Côte d’Ivoire, has also warned against military intervention, highlighting negative consequences for the sub-region.

Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, hosting a West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) summit in Bamako on 23 January, noted that “when Côte d’Ivoire has a cold, the whole of the UEMOA starts sneezing”. Touré has also gone with the “force as a last resort” line, hinting that Ivoirian and West African interests are better served through financial pressure.

Sierra Leonean President Ernest Koroma, one of the three original ECOWAS mediators, has volunteered a contingent of troops (120-150) to a regional force. Koroma was in an ECOWAS delegation to Washington in late January, meeting US Assistant Secretary of State Johnny Carson and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

Another of the original ECOWAS team of three, Benin leader Yayi Boni visited Angola in January and was later quoted by the Angolan press as stating there was proof that Gbagbo had won the elections.

President Yahyah Jammeh of The Gambia has been the only ECOWAS leader to come out H3ly for Gbagbo , the Gambian government blaming ECOWAS’s support for Ouattara on “pressure from some Western powers whose vested interests in the natural resources of Côte d’Ivoire is an open secret”.


Reservations about military intervention have come from civil society activists as well as politicians, intellectuals and military experts.

For example, speaking at a five-day general assembly in Accra, the executive director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), Emmanuel Bombande, warned: “The option of military intervention is not a creditable measure as that would create a platform for a nationwide destruction of life and property.”

A key factor in deciding where ECOWAS goes next will be the security of large communities from neighbouring states inside Côte d’Ivoire. Estimates vary, but regardless of identity documents and duration of stay in the country, hundreds of thousands of people are identified as Malians, Burkinabes, Guineans, Ghanaians, Senegalese and Nigerians. Nigeria has already had its embassy attacked because of its perceived pro-Ouattara stance. Resident communities, already exposed to violence and prejudice, will not want to run the further risk of being identified with an alien invasion.

Sources: AFP, Business Day (South Africa), Jornal de Angola, The Monitor (Uganda), Vanguard, This Day (Nigeria), Centrafrique Skyrock, ECOWAS, Seneweb, Daily Observer (Liberia)




This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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