As Ivory Coast stalemate worsens, so do the chances of military intervention

Although the West African regional body, ECOWAS, has threatened to use force to remove incumbent President Laurent Gbabgo, nobody wants to ignite a second civil war in Ivory Coast.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo waits to meet Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga (not pictured) to discuss the post-electoral situation at the presidential palace in Abidjan, on Jan. 17.

At least 247 people have died since Ivory Coast's Nov. 28 election, which was supposed to end a 12 year conflict in the world's top cocoa producer. At least 49 people have disappeared, and those whisked away to secret prisons may number in the hundreds.

Those are the latest numbers from a United Nations mission that has been firebombed, shot at, and increasingly understood as an occupying army by defenders of Laurent Gbagbo, the renegade president who has escalated his refusal to concede electoral defeat into a once-in-a-generation-battle for the sovereignty of this former French colony.

And last week, the UN announced from Geneva that its agents have caught word of – but been blocked from visiting – a third mass grave, this one stuffed with 80 bodies buried less than 50 miles from the Liberian border; a line that 25,000 everyday Ivoirians have crossed since November, searching for a country where sporadically violent house searches, attacks on UN convoys, and tire-fire road blocks manned by gun-waving extortionists aren't the new norm.

"The question now being discussed within the UN is the urgency of military intervention, not only to protect UN peacekeepers," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who tried Rwandan war criminals in the 1990s.

Will foreign forces intervene?

Military intervention is the question now being discussed all over West Africa, actually.

In December, ECOWAS – the 15-country union of West African states – signed off on "the use of legitimate force" to remove Gbagbo if the former history professer can't pick a sunny spot in Nice or Nigeria to while away his retirement.

The bloc has 6,500 troops ready to snatch Gbagbo from his presidential bed, but you need not mingle in a pro-Gbagbo Abidjan rally or interview a pro-government militia leader in the country's west to imagine how even a well-executed kidnapping operation could ignite a second gruesome civil war in this, the region's third most populous country.

An ECOWAS attack would lead to a "Third World War," threatened Charles Blé Goudé, histrionic agitator-general of the government-backed Young Patriots militia, notorious for its Kristallnacht-esque attacks on foreigners and foreign-run institutions.

Which is perhaps why Ghanaian President John Atta Mills announced on Jan. 7 that his nation would not participate in any military invasion of its western neighbor. To his credit, he is probably securing the safety of more than one million Ghanaians who live and make their daily bread in neighborhoods like Abidjan's Ghana Town.

But such prudence pits Mr. Mills (whose party denies that he received campaign contributions from Gbagbo in 2008) against Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the 84-year-old grandfather figure in the region lobbying hard to keep the military option open.

Mr. Wade is a close ally of Alassane Outtara, the former International Monetary Fund economist that nearly every world leader recognizes as the clear winner of the Nov. 28 election. The Senegalese president even financed and twice hosted Outtara during the candidate's run.

Now, his communications adviser says Wade "is looking for an ensemble of countries that can do something about this."

"This isn't Saddam Hussein we're talking about," Wade adviser Papa Dieng said. "Gbagbo is weak."

A crack in Outtara's strategy

Or at least Gbagbo is supposed to be weak: Outtara's masterplan was to fiscally starve Gbagbo out of power by blocking his access to the Dakar-based Central Bank where Ivory Coast's currency reserves are kept.

But that strategy seems to have sprung a leak.

"We have statistics showing daily withdrawals from Ivory Coast's account," Outtara's Development Minister Toikeusse Mabri told reporters in Dakar, Senegal on Friday.

Personal threats and attacks on Central Bank employees in Abidjan have led to unexplained activity on the country's account, Mr. Mabri said. His government – currently barricaded inside an Abidjan hotel that has to helicopter in everything from food to dry cleaning – is requesting a full bank statement, to be delivered today.

"What we have found is that not only has the account seen movement, but some commercial banks are implicated in measures that we could characterize as fraud," he added. "The system has been sidestepped. Checks from Ivoirian accounts have been deposited directly in a commercial bank. There's activity on a treasury bond that the system itself doesn't even recognize. There's been attempts to demand companies to pay their taxes in cash."

How long can it go on?

Under the circumstances, Gbagbo could last three months, Mabri said.

But beyond the ranks of Outtara's hotel government, observers are estimating that, between cocoa taxes, oil revenue, and plain-old extortion, Gbagbo's government might just be breaking even.

For 10 years, rebels and government soldiers alike profited from the cease-fire line, fringed with armed checkpoints that separated its Christian, wealthier south from the rural, poorer, Islamic north.

With ECOWAS's military option crumbling into non-committal statecraft – and Outtara's starve-'em-out strategy oozing money – it's plausible that Ivory Coast's cease-fire partition could continue to serve as another north-south groove in the geopolitical map; a limit, à la South Korea or South Sudan, where the international community's ability to impose democracy met its high watermark, and a stubborn, isolated autocracy found a way to hold on through the worst of times.

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