ABIDJAN/DAKAR (Reuters) - West African leaders have threatened to remove Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo by force if he refuses to go quietly, but are likely to rely on persuasion rather than arms to get their way.
Urban warfare and heavy civilian casualties in the former economic jewel of West Africa would be nearly inevitable if regional bloc ECOWAS rolled in the troops, and member states like Nigeria are reluctant to pay this price, analysts said.
ECOWAS sent three heads of state to Abidjan on Tuesday to order Gbagbo to hand over power to rival Alassane Ouattara after a disputed November 28 election that world powers say Ouattara won, or face “legitimate force.”
After meeting Gbagbo and Ouattara, the envoys said more meetings were needed to resolve the crisis and reported back to the ECOWAS chairman, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
Jonathan said ECOWAS would make a decision on Ivory Coast after further talks with Gbagbo next week, adding that he hoped the outcome would be peaceful.
“Whenever there is a disagreement it is dialogue that resolves it,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “Dialogue is on.”
J. Peter Pham, Africa security analyst at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy said regional powers would be unable to remove Gbagbo by force.
“While the threat of intervention does create pressure on Gbagbo, an objective analysis has to start by asking how ECOWAS would actually make good on it if it came down to it,” he said.
A successful military intervention would involve a clinical operation to remove Gbagbo and some key elements of his government -- something ECOWAS appears incapable of, Pham added.
“None of the ECOWAS countries has anything approaching the ability to provide real-time operational intelligence on the whereabouts at any given moment of Gbagbo or his closest collaborators, much less the type of elite commando units capable of carrying out such a ‘decapitation strike’,” he said.
A full-scale invasion involving urban fighting and civilian casualties is an option the countries are not prepared for, especially Nigeria which is moving towards 2011 elections, Pham said.
Member state Gambia said on Wednesday that it opposed the use of force to resolve the dispute.
Washington last week expressed support for ECOWAS’s role in solving the Ivorian crisis, and the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have all said they recognise Ouattara as president.
RISKS FOR GOODLUCK
Nigeria provides the backbone both in men and financing for the bloc’s intervention force, ECOMOG, which has been used as a peacekeeping force in civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Some analysts say that even though Jonathan enjoys the role of regional power broker, he will want to retain the military option as a last resort for domestic political reasons.
“Nigeria has its own political battle going on at home and military action would not be a good political or financial move for Jonathan coming up to elections,” said Dapo Oylewole, director of the Centre for African Policy and Peace Strategy.
“Violence has flared up recently in the Nigerian northern city of Jos and it would not be a popular move for Jonathan to be seen taking his focus away from problems at home,” he said.
Ivory Coast national television ran editorials with bloody pictures after ECOWAS issued its ultimatum to Gbagbo, warning that any military intervention was risky for the citizens of other member states resident in Ivory Coast.
Many of Ivory Coast’s 21 million people are from nearby countries seeking employment in the former regional economic powerhouse, including more than 2 million Nigerians and 3 million Burkinabe.
“Jonathan has to balance the need to appear strong and presidential in the lead up to his parties’ primary on January 13 and the elections in April with the concern not to set any precedents that might come back to haunt him,” Pham said.
“Moreover, he doesn’t want to run his own campaign with a messy intervention as its backdrop, especially when the two million Nigerian traders resident in Cote d’Ivoire begged him over the weekend to stay out,” he said.
Additional reporting by Joe Brock and Felix Onuah in Nigeria; editing by Tim Pearce
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