, LAGOS, Dec 31 – West African countries are holding off on threats to use force to push Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo out of office but military chiefs in the region are mapping out a strategy for intervention.
The west African regional bloc ECOWAS has in the past successfully used force to flush out recalcitrant warlords and restore peace, but conflict resolution experts warn any intervention in Ivory Coast has to be carefully thought out or it will be doomed.
Under its now defunct peacekeeping force ECOMOG, successful deployments were made in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and briefly in Ivory Coast before the United Nations took over.
Following on that success, ECOWAS went on to create a regional troubleshooting standby force.
With its bases in Sierra Leone\’s seaside capital of Freetown and Mali\’s capital Bamako, the 6,500-strong rapid reaction force was planned to be in place by this year and officials say it is almost ready to deploy.
At a summit last week in Abuja, ECOWAS voted to deploy a peace enforcement force, where soldiers can kill to restore and preserve peace under a UN charter.
In that case civilian casualties may not be avoided, said peacekeeping experts.
"That would lead to a lot of struggle between supporters of Mr Gbagbo and those of Mr (Alassane) Ouattara. ECOWAS will need to think more," said Kwesi Aning, head of the department for conflict prevention, management and resolution at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre in Ghana.
Gbagbo "has a strong support and they will not give up like that," he said.
For the operation to succeed, Tajudeen Akanji of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Nigeria\’s premier university of Ibadan said the ECOWAS force will need to get in quickly.
"They should act as soon as possible otherwise the man (Gbagbo)…. might fortify," said Akanji, adding ideally such an operation should be executed in between two and four weeks.
"If they don\’t act intelligently, there will be rebel groups and that place will not know peace," he warned.
The logistics of how troops could be moved into Ivory Coast were not exactly clear.
"A military intervention will not work in Ivory Coast," said retired general Ishola Williams, executive secretary of the Pan African Strategic and Policy Research Group.
"It is different from the case in Liberia and Sierra Leone. There is no civil war. How will the military go in there? Will they walk on Abidjan?"
In its approach to the Ivorian crisis, ECOWAS could learn from the experience of the botched US-led Operation Restore Hope which failed to remove the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed, observers say.
Gbagbo is a "very clever" politician, said Williams, and enjoys the backing of the country\’s military hierarchy and the militant youths led by Charles Ble Goude.
ECOWAS is believed to be mulling a 2,000-3,000-strong force, but diplomats doubt the region has the capacity to build such a force.
A credible strength for a country the size of Ivory Coast should be between 5,000 and 7,000 troops, said Aning.
Despite fears of a spillover effect of Ivory Coast violence on its nascent oil industry, Ghana announced Thursday it won\’t send any troops because it is overstretched with deployments elsewhere.
Nigeria, the regional powerhouse, is likely to be the biggest contributor of troops but it has pressing internal security demands.
With elections coming up within four months, it will need to secure its turf, more so the volatile oil region of the Niger Delta and the now Islamist-infested north. Troops have been deployed in the central region where at least 80 people were killed in bomb blasts on Christmas eve.
Nigeria should reconsider its "Santa Claus role" said Olu Obafemi, chief researcher at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, based on the outskirts of the volatile central city of Jos.
"We are not saying it should not be involved, but it should do it in such a way that it does not jeopardise national interests. There are lots of internal security threats that need lots of capacity," said Obafemi.
Senegal\’s Abdoulaye Wade has his own political succession issues to deal with back home and the separatist conflict in Casamance that may hamper his donation of troops. Guinea and Niger are out of ECOWAS for now.
Again, sending in troops will not be an overnight decision as presidents need parliamentary clearance.