Leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) arrived in Abudja, Cote D’Ivoire today to issue Laurent Gbagbo an ultimatum: Step aside or be forced out. The implied threat here is of some sort of military intervention, lead by the regional power Nigeria, that would forcibly remove Gbagbo.
I’m not entirely sure how credible this prospect. For one, such an intervention would presumably have to be sanctioned by the Security Council, and I am not entirely sure that all five of the permanent members would be on board. Even if the council does approve a Nigerian-led multi-national force to invade and occupy Cote D’Ivoire, what would the chances of success look like? They would probably have to shoot their way into hostile territory; Gbagbo controls the army, and has the support of at least 35% of the population.
Something similar unfolded in the late 1990s in Sierra Leone to miserable effect. In 1998 a Nigerian led ECOWAS force, with UN support, booted rebels from the capital Freetown and re-installed the rightful president. As the international community negotiated the replacement of ECOWAS with a proper UN Peacekeeping force, the rebels regrouped and gained control of half the country (and fomented conflict in neighboring countries, like Liberia). UN peacekeepers were outgunned, out manned, and unable to enforce a peace. The rebels were not routed until 2002, when the United Kingdom sent a contingent of special forces to the country.
The lesson here is that these types of invasions can have some untended and unforeseen consequences. While ECOWAS deserves international support for putting up a unified front in support of democracy in Cote D’Ivoire, we ought to be thinking of other creative ways to pressure the Gbagbo camp. Hopefully, Gbagbo will respond favorably to the entreaties of the West African leaders with whom he is meeting today. If not, the international community should be prepared to move to Plan B. I’m not sure what that is, but I am not yet convinced that it ought to include the invasion of Cote D’Ivoire.