Why foreign forces are unlikely to intervene in Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast's would-be prime minister, Guillaume Soro, called Wednesday for civil disobedience and foreign military intervention as the only ways out of the deadlock.

Sunday Alamba/AP
UN troops exit the UN headquarters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the scene of an attack Friday by gunmen. The man who refuses to step down from the presidency ordered thousands of UN peacekeepers to leave Ivory Coast immediately on Saturday, calling the global body that has endorsed his political rival an 'agent of destabilization.'

As Ivory Coast's political crisis threatens to pull the West African nation back into civil war, both of the men claiming to be president after the Nov. 28 vote are battening down the hatches. And foreigners are getting out of the way.

Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo – who maintains effective control of the country, including the military, the borders, and the state media – refuses to cede power, even in the face of near-unanimous world reproach.

Across town in a hotel turned bunker, Alassane Ouattara, the man the United Nations and dozens of African and Western countries support as the clear winner of last month's presidential election, is holed up and looking to shift the balance of power any way he can.

Mr. Outtara's would-be prime minister, Guillaume Soro, called for civil disobedience and foreign military intervention as the only ways out of the deadlock. But such calls aren't likely to result in foreign troops enforcing the election result, say analysts.

Although European and North American governments have already announced travel bans on Mr. Gbagbo, his family, and entourage, they are unlikely to take this up to the level of military engagement, says Peter Pham, Africa expert and senior vice president at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy think tank in New York. “Banning Gbagbo from doing his Christmas shopping in Paris isn't a real sanction,” he says.

While the possibility of an African intervention has been floating in diplomatic circles, “this option would be spearheaded by Nigeria, which doesn't want to embark on a foreign military escapade on the eve of their own presidential election,” says Mr. Pham.

Foreigners flee

In the meantime, foreigners are fleeing, concerned that widespread violence could break out any minute.

One after another, foreign governments have called on their citizens to leave. The United States, Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and Portugal have all called for a general evacuation.

In 2004, almost 10,000 French citizens were brought back to France by emergency military airlift after anti-French riots broke out.

President-elect lacks hard power

Ouattara remains, for the time being, a president with international recognition but no real power on the ground. This doesn't prevent him from trying, anyway he can, to cut the legs out from under Gbagbo's administration.

Evoking reports of Liberian and Angolan mercenaries on the payroll of Gbagbo, and the disappearances of pro-Ouattara activists from their home at night, would-be Prime Minister Soro called Wednesday for the International Criminal Court to investigate Gbagbo for crimes against humanity.

Ouattara's camp is also mobilizing international financial institutions in an effort to cut off Gbagbo's cash flow.

The World Bank, African Development Bank, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have all frozen Gbagbo's accounts, and efforts are still being pursued to secure the state treasury, which is located in Senegal as part of a central bank that covers eight west African countries.

Gbagbo warns neighbors

But Gbagbo retains one key element of dissuasion to convince his African neighbors to mind their own affairs, says Pham.

Because Ivory Coast exports electricity to its neighbors, “if they decide to act against Gbagbo, he could literally shut their lights off,” Pham says.

And should African nations move to enforce the internationally verified election results proclaiming Ouattara as the winner, Gbagbo has warned that they could experience similar interference.

“Whatever happens to Gbagbo,” he said referring to himself, “could potentially happen to all the African heads of state.”

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