As protests rock northern Africa in Egypt and Tunisia, it is important that we not forget the ongoing problems in the rest of the continent. While Sudan seems to be relatively stable following groundbreaking elections held roughly three weeks ago, Ivory Coast is still gridlocked, with little hope for the peaceful resolution of a recent disputed election. Despite the focus on the relatively peaceful protests in the north, the international community must closely examine what role multinational organizations and first-tier states should play in preventing a second devastating civil war in Africa.
The standoff in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, began late last year when a runoff election for the presidency resulted in victory for the challenger, Alassandre Ouattara. International mediators approved the elections as legitimate despite some allegations of fraud, but the incumbent loser Laurent Gbagbo has since refused to leave office. This has resulted in a freeze of the government as each of the two presidents attempt to manage state affairs, appointing different cabinets and sending different orders to the national bank.
The international community generally supports Ouattara, but while Gbagbo’s assets in Western financial institutions have been frozen, concrete steps to resolve the standoff have been skirted by Western governments. Even the Ivory Coast’s former colonial occupier, France, has been unwilling to take on a significant role in the crisis. The Economic Community of West African States seems increasingly convinced that military intervention is the only way to resolve the standoff, but other groups, including the African Union, remain unconvinced.
The AU’s special panel on the crisis has suggested multiple avenues for resolution, but none are particularly tenable, including a suggestion that the election results be reexamined, an outcome that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said would be a “grave injustice.” African leaders are now faced with few options other than outright intervention, an eventuality that they are poorly prepared to execute but are increasingly tending to favor. This is especially true within ECOWAS, which will likely make a final decision regarding a course of action soon.
While many African military forces are considered world-class, they are usually equipped and trained for domestic deployments, with very little combat experience or institutional knowledge of executing regime change — a very good thing, given the rate of military coups that have troubled West Africa in the past. Ironically, the states stable and successful enough to lend troops to an Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group deployment are those with the least experience in combat or stability operations. Furthermore, the operation that would remove Gbagbo from power will require highly professional and well-equipped special operations troops, given the difficulty of such “snatch and grab” missions and the logistic constraints of operating within a cramped and locked-down West African city. Unfortunately, no matter how professional West African militaries are on paper, their Special Operations Forces simply cannot compare to Navy Seals or Delta Force.
Western powers should recognize all of these limitations; the likelihood that a regional intervention will end peacefully is certainly not high. Optimists will cite ECOMOG’s successes in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but that came after significant intervention from Western powers, including the United Kingdom and a surprisingly stabilizing operation conducted by Executive Outcomes, a now-defunct South African private military firm. To save Cote d’Ivoire, Western powers need to do something more than sit by the sidelines like spectators. International stability might not be significantly rocked by a civil war in Ivory Coast, but peacekeeping is almost always an easier task than peacemaking. It’s only logical that Western powers should recognize the benefits of intervening in the Abidjan crisis.
The United States has more than enough on its plate right now, as operations in the War on Terror have yet to comprehensively scale down despite the extraction of most of the American troops from Iraq. Other states need to step up. If the French were to shift their peacekeeping force already located on the outskirts of Abidjan from a neutral to an intervening force, the crisis could be resolved quickly and painlessly. Peacekeepers could then be supplemented by further troops to prevent the outbreak of civil war between supporters of the rival camps.
There is no easy answer in the Ivory Coast and the West especially should not take the easy route and ignore the crisis. In the long run, intervention now is better than the prospect of another long, brutal civil war in a continent already ravaged by conflict.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at [email protected] BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Thursday.