Ivory Coast standoff: Hit Gbagbo where it hurts -- take away the power of the purse

Tensions are escalating in Ivory Coast, where President Laurent Gbagbo refuses to yield power to President-elect Alassane Ouattara. The international community's coordinated economic pressures hold the most hope for peacefully ousting Mr. Gbagbo and prevent mounting violence. Where diplomatic efforts have fallen short, cutting off Gbagbo's funds may turn his allies against him.

Laurent Gbagbo, the self-proclaimed winner of Ivory Coast’s Nov. 2010 presidential election, is known to his countrymen and others as “le boulanger” – the baker – because he emerges as the victor against his many opponents by rolling them in the flour or, to put it another way, by outwitting and outmaneuvering them. Is the international community the next to be rolled?

Politicians and diplomats the world over are working overtime to craft a peaceful solution to the stand-off between Mr. Gbagbo and the man whom the international community recognizes as the Ivory Coast’s duly elected president, Alassane Ouattara. Much is at stake. Gbagbo (who's held office since 2000) refuses to yield power, a power-sharing deal seems out of the question, tens of thousands are voting with their feet by fleeing the country, and the remnants of democracy in this nation are fast eroding.

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Most of the ingredients of the international community’s own recipes for resolution, however, do not appear at the present time to suit Gbagbo’s tastes. Military and political options – either in combination of alone – lack the necessary yeast to lift Gbagbo from power. But if coordinated economic pressures are handled just right, they may comprise the recipe that gets the baker out of the kitchen for good. If successful, this approach also documents a recipe to use on other autocratic power-mongers, unmoved by previous actions or enticement.

Political and military pressures alone won't work

Some recipes applied to the Ivory Coast, such as that solution proffered initially by the US, have emphasized one ingredient – a political one. It involved appointing Gbagbo to a high-level position in an international organization or giving him asylum in the US. However, in keeping with his persona as the baker, Gbagbo will probably not consider the US offer very seriously because he will probably feel that it does not serve his short or long-term interests, and it is not of his own design. To prove the point, Gbagbo has been happy to let the White House’s telephone calls go to voice mail.

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Other recipes, however, such as the one developed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), rely on using a blend of key ingredients: political incentives, military threats, and economic and financial penalties. Yet of these, neither the political nor the military option is likely to motivate Gbagbo to step down.

Regional diplomatic efforts, led by the African Union and ECOWAS, have twice failed, and Gbagbo is patently ignoring US efforts, as noted above. As for the military approach, ECOWAS members have publicly announced a willingness to send troops into Ivory Coast to install Mr. Ouattara as the rightful leader. Yet ECOWAS’ prior military forays in the sub-region (Sierra Leone and Liberia) were incredibly expensive, high risk, and not terribly successful.

Obstacles to military intervention

Moreover, signaling the will to intervene does not equate to readiness. Of the two best-equipped member states able to lend troops to a proposed intervention force, Ghana has refused and Nigeria is signaling reluctance. Ghana was not keen to see its one million nationals living in Ivory Coast face intervention-related reprisals, and Nigeria has its own elections coming up in April.

And perhaps most important, military intervention would be a highly undesirable way for Ouattara to begin a presidency, as it would foster resentment among Gbagbo supporters and could very well sow the seeds for resistance and rebellion in the near term.

Economic and financial pressures

Instead, the critical ingredients invoked recently by ECOWAS that stand the highest likelihood of turning the tide decisively against Gbagbo are economic and financial. The Central Bank of West Africa (BCEAO) has given Ouattara signing rights to Ivory Coast’s state reserves. This has been mirrored by a World Bank decision to effectively freeze Gbagbo’s access to international financial resources. A latecomer to this strategy, the US Treasury has also recently frozen Gbagbo’s assets.

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These actions create a myriad of interconnected dilemmas that may well roll the baker in his own flour. Among them, Gbagbo will soon be unable to pay his military forces, which until now have remained under his control. Historically, unpaid African militaries take political matters into their own hands, inciting coups against those who fail to pay them, or changing their loyalties to those who can, like Ouattara.

In addition, many in Gbagbo’s inner circle may soon have a strong incentive to defect. The European Union has offered to lift its asset freeze and travel ban on any of the 78 individuals closest to him politically if they publicly acknowledge Ouattara as the duly elected president of the nation. By reframing the economic self-interests of Gbagbo’s allies, his support network is more likely to evaporate. This, in turn, makes it more likely that he would concede power.

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Best hope for the future

Gbagbo, like many other autocrats, has profited enormously from being the baker. Putting the financial and economic squeeze on him may be the international community’s best hope to resolve Ivory Coast’s political impasse and possibly prevent the country from returning to the civil war that plagued the country during the past decade. And it may record a recipe for regional and international players to use in the future when autocrats refuse to get out of the kitchen.

Melissa Labonte is assistant professor of political science at Fordham University.

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