The political stalemate in Cote d’Ivoire, where there is a stand-off between two “presidents” and their forces, continues without an apparent end in sight. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is trying to mediate while also threatening to use military force to end the impasse.
It is, however, becoming clear that ECOWAS, which has not shied away in the past from using military might to put out fires in the region, does not appear keen for another fire fighting exercise. This, though, does not mean that ECOWAS would not use force again in the region to bring calm to West Africa.
When ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) forces intervened in Liberia in 1990, it was a bold move indeed, which saw for the first time a regional grouping intervening militarily in a member state to restore order. Such intervention is now enshrined in international humanitarian law.
Again, when in 1998 Nigerian/ECOMOG troops kicked out the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) that had removed the civilian government of President Tejan Kabbah here in Sierra Leone a year earlier it was another popular move. Intervention, too, in Guinea Bissau proved popular and successful.
But now we have dissenting voices among ECOWAS leaders such as Presidents John Atta Mills of Ghana, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia. They do not back military intervention for various reasons. Mills and Jammeh think the situation in Cote d’Ivoire is an internal matter that should be dealt with internally while Johnson Sirleaf believes that military intervention would lead to an almighty conflagration, which would also engulf Liberia.
This time round for ECOWAS, though, the Cote d’Ivoire situation is not as straightforward as it would seem. The matter is a complex one, which involves international intrigue. As we all know, the French government has a keen interest in Cote d’Ivoire and it is no secret that Paris does not like Laurent Gbagbo, one of the two “presidents”. The French managed to reduce the capacity of the Gbagbo government to fight against New Forces rebels in the north of the country when so-called French peacekeepers destroyed the country’s tiny air force on the grounds that Ivorian government troops had attacked their “peacekeepers”. But it was clear that this was an act carried out in order to strengthen the rebels, who were receiving tacit support from Paris.
Now, it would seem that the French want ECOWAS to do their dirty job. Paris has used its influence in the European Community to get the bloc to take a stand that favour’s the French position. So this is why we have a stalemate and reluctance by some ECOWAS leaders to sanction military intervention in Cote d’Ivoire.
However, there are others who have kept quiet because they might themselves become embroiled in the future in a constitutional crisis similar to that in Cote d’Ivoire. Here, Senegal comes to mind. Although President Abdoulaye Wade has denied grooming his son, Karim, to take over from him, one cannot write this off. Wade senior, in his denial, added a rider: that Karim was a citizen of Senegal and was therefore free to stand in an election whenever he wanted to. So, there is a real possibility of Karim being foisted on the Senegalese.
In all this, President Ernest Koroma and his two colleagues from Benin and Cape Verde are busy trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem in Cote d’Ivoire in their roles as ECOWAS mediators. What does Koroma’s role portend for the future of politics in Sierra Leone? It is necessary to ask this question because Koroma’s party, the APC, has not been a paragon of political rectitude itself. After all, this was the party that introduced violence into politics in Sierra Leone; the party whose thugs burnt down the headquarters of the SLPP in Freetown in 2009.
Having said this, though, I believe that Koroma will relish his mediator role. But what I think is more important is that he should use his new position in the international arena to rein in the cave men in the APC who are still mired in the Stone Age: the ones who still think that elections are only won through violence.
When I met the president briefly in London at Chatham House, the think tank on international affair, when he was leader of the opposition, he seemed to be a reasonable bloke. Again, when I met him in London after he had become president, he was still the same easy-going man who would like to see things done.
Alas, there are those within his party who appear to be frustrating his well-intentioned efforts to do well for Sierra Leone. Even his position as party leader is still hanging in the balance because the courts have not given a final ruling on this. Nevertheless, he should now read the riot act to his party members and let them know that those who back violence would no longer be allowed to carry on in this manner.
It would really be an embarrassment for the president if the APC were to descend into its bad old ways when elections come round in 2012 or even before then. I have actually received a few phone calls from Sierra Leoneans abroad who believe that the president’s new role would bring relief to the electorate who have had to bear the brunt of political violence in Sierra Leone.
In the meantime, grave human rights violations are being reported in Cote d’Ivoire; there is an impasse over the restoration of constitutional order; a human disaster might be occurring; and the country could be inexorably moving again to civil war. So, there is every reason for ECOWAS to intervene robustly to put things in order in Cote d’Ivoire. But the manner of this intervention is easier said than done.
Thus, as the debate on whether or not to intervene continues, the delay appears to be allowing Gbagbo to buy time something he has done since 2005 while the situation for Alassane Ouattara (the other “president”) and his supporters becomes even more precarious.
But in the final analysis, I think that both “presidents” should relinquish their positions.
These two men have been features of the Ivorian political scene for far too long as is the case in so many other African countries where the old-timers continue to cling to power even though they are bereft of new ideas to move their countries forward.
The failure of the old guard to relinquish power in Africa is what is holding back the continent’s development and the cause of unnecessary tensions and conflicts as we are witnessing in Cote d’Ivoire.
By Desmond Davied