“The Accidental Ecowas & AU Citizen”:
Cote D’Ivoire 2011, or A Tale of ECOWAS & The AU’s Test of Legitimacy?
By E.K.Bensah Jr
At first, it looked like just another African electoral headache: a relatively peaceful first round that set the stage for a second round; and a round which, despite initial figures supporting the opposition, would end with the declaration of the incumbent as winner. So far, so familiar.
Soon after, one would see a flurry of envoys from both the African Union and its regional counterparts in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) shuttling up and down the two headquarters of the AU and ECOWAS in Addis, and Abuja respectively. In December 2010, the AU was quick to appoint South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, whose mediation efforts had been instrumental in the 2005 peace accord that brought about cessation of hostilities. Mbeki would be replaced soon after by the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga as the AU envoy. This was indeed unprecedented given his erstwhile combative comments that Cote d’Ivoire should be dealt with a strong hand with rapid, military intervention.
The appointment by the AU of Odinga was from the outset highly problematic as it suggested to the outside world that the AU was in favour of power-sharing—despite protestations to the contrary. Secondly, given that Gbagbo had dealt with his presidential “equals” five years prior, it was quizzical for the AU to dispatch what Gbagbo’s entourage would later call a “mere Prime minister”. Though Odinga was quick to talk of peaceful measures to resolve the crisis, all his many attempts to enable concessions from the incumbent leader of Cote d’Ivoire proved futile.
In January 2011, diplomatic success would also elude the West African troika of the presidents of Cape Verde (Pedro Pires); Benin (Boni Yayi); and Sierra Leone (Ernest Coroma) who all left Abidjan without any concessions from Gbagbo.
ECOWAS was quick to react to the post-electoral breakdown in Côte d’Ivoire, coming out firmly in support of Ouattara’s election, which was firmly endorsed at an extraordinary summit in Abuja on 7 December 2010, and attended by seven heads of state. The summit would suspend Côte d’Ivoire from all ECOWAS decision-making bodies and make an appeal to Gbagbo “to yield power without delay”.
When only ten ECOWAS member states met on 24 December, they issued a communiqué that “legitimate force” as a “last resort” would be used in the event of failed attempts to mediate the crisis. The majority of the international community went agog, with claims that “military intervention” was being considered at a time when pacific measures were possible. This was strange, given that nowhere in the communique does the statement even use the term "military intervention".
Critical to understanding the unprecedented nature of this crisis is the role of intergovernmental and regional institutions—key among which are ECOWAS and UEMOA. West Africa’s unique case of having an AU-recognized regional economic community (REC) under ECOWAS coexisting with the smaller UEMOA (comprising eight francophone ECOWAS members) has been a reality of the sub-region since 1994. Since then, there have been crises in the UEMOA countries, including Guinea-Bissau, Niger, and Togo. Interestingly, this was the first time UEMOA would be proactive in sanctioning a member state. Given that the West African Central Bank is located in the country, it was even more significant, as it spoke volumes about how far UEMOA was apparently prepared to go in economically-strangling the economy of Cote d’Ivoire to ensure it would comply with demands of ECOWAS. When this was coupled with efforts of ECOWAS, it symbolized a veritable force against the obduracy of Gbagbo.
Though ECOWAS had acted first by convening a meeting soon after the crisis erupted in December 2010, and which lead to the suspension of Cote d’Ivoire, the AU—as the putative custodian of continental peace—was equally quick to ensure it was right in the thick of resolving the crisis. The execrable quality of that intervention has already been touched upon, but what has yet to be addressed is the intervention by the United Nations – or lack thereof.
While it is true that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was quick to proclaim Outtara as the president, through information that came from his special representative in that country Y J Choi, the conspicuous absence of the UN Office on West Africa, headed by Said Djinnit is equally noteworthy. Much of the media was focused on Choi and surprisingly less on UNOWA. This is curious, considering its mandate, among many, “to facilitate systematic and regular linkages in the work of the UN in the sub region, to define and harmonize national and sub regional policies and strategies…” Beyond Choi and Ban, not once did we see or hear Djinnit make a statement about the crisis. Clearly, even the “good offices role” that has been conferred it was not made available.
Interestingly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was in his most-activist mode yet. First came the immediate backing of Outtara. Secondly, it would be a UN/French-sponsored helicopter attack on Gbagbo’s residence in late March, where stockpiles of heavy weapons had been kept. It would be this attack that would culminate in the beginning of the end for Gbagbo.
As for the AU, it seemed to have another chance to redeem itself under increasing criticism of its inconsistent stance on the crisis. Time and again, member states were divided as to whether there should be a re-count or whether it was actually Gbagbo who had won, with Angola and Equitorial Guinea being two of the foremost proponents of the anti-Outarra camp. That the head of state of the latter, Teodoro Obiang, would be elected by Central Africa at the AU’s powerful Peace and Security Council to the rotating chair of the AU Commission has done little to improve the image of the AU.
Furthermore, the composition of the panel – comprising South Africa; Mauritania; Chad; Tanzania and Burkina Faso—was considered problematic, especially with former coup-leader of Mauritania heading the panel, and a skeptical (and some might say duplicitous) South Africa which felt Gbagbo had been dealt too harsh a blow.
Though each had their entrenched positions, it was clear that the real and influential power-brokers in South Africa and Burkina Faso were diametrically opposed. Burkina’s Blaise Compaore was fiercely resisted by Gbagbo’s supporters. The Jeunes Patriotes and other Gbagbo loyalists regard Compaoré as having been complicit in the original insurgency staged by the Forces Nouvelles that led to the coup in September 2002, and which are strongly allied to Ouattara before and after the elections, and now working through ECOWAS to prepare the ground for a military solution.
Conversely, media reports indicate that South Africa’s Jacob Zuma made claims of voter irregularity, which was bound to antagonize ECOWAS even more. South Africa’s 1st February edition of the “Daily Maverick” maintained: “it is tragic that this ever-increasing pissing contest between South Africa and Nigeria over who has the most influence on the Dark Continent is being fought over the future of an entire country.” Arguing that “the AU’s involvement…stands in direct contrast to the way Madagascar coup was handled in 2009”, the paper goes on: “In Cote d’Ivoire, every man and his dog wants to have a say, especially those who disagree with Ecowas.”
To buttress the idea of an apparently-antagonistic role of South Africa was the public statement by ECOWAS Commission President Victor Gbeho. Speaking in Abuja, Gbeho warned of disunity towards the Ivoirian crisis. “The concern we have is that apart from some geo-political interests by some countries, there are others that are encouraging Gbagbo not to leave,” he said. “Because of certain individual interests, some countries have decided to break the tradition of solidarity in ECOWAS. What is happening is a matter of serious concern to ECOWAS and the international community, as certain countries have taken sides.”
Gbeho further accused South Africa of stationing a warship in Côte d’Ivoire’s coastal waters, “apparently in anticipation of any military action”. The South African Defence Ministry said the SAS Drakensberg was a supply vessel undertaking a routine training operation in West Africa. For a ship to appear at a time when divisions were emerging has only lent further credence to a South African interference in a very West African conflict which hard-line-stance was ostensibly being spearheaded by Nigeria.
Furthermore, despite the fact that Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan was given a second mandate as ECOWAS Chairman, the sub-regional body’s absence was made all the more conspicuous because of his re-election as President in the Nigerian elections. Predictably, this gave rise to speculation that he was too preoccupied in exercising his franchise to care about ensuring ECOWAS’ leadership was shown and felt. The reality is that ECOWAS was seeking to solicit UN Security Council support—as per the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN’s Charter – to continue with a solution predicated on “legitimate force.”
The UK-based Africa Research Institute reports that “Cote d’Ivoire is the latest testing ground for Africa’s regional institutions.” Truth be told, it is more than that: it has exposed heretofore latent cleavages between two of the biggest financial contributors to the AU who double as hegemons in their own right – Nigeria in West Africa and South Africa in Southern Africa.
Even if one is to dismiss what the Daily Maverick writes about it being “bewildering…that South Africa so reliably goes along with countries that are consistently riding roughshod over their own people’s basic rights…”, what is clear is that in the long run, it has been African diplomacy – for all the bluff and bluster – that has taken a blow.
This is because this conflict has revealed how both an AU and ECOWAS failed to clarify the qualitative nature of "legitimate force". The use of “legitimate force” was inevitably going to be about the utilisation of an ECOWAS Standby Force(ESF), comprising some 6,500 men, that would act as a Rapid Deployment Capability (RDC) force to oust Gbagbo.
The AU has been working on a grand project of an African Standby Force for many years now. Discussions of it reached a climax during the celebration of its Year of Peace and Security (climaxed on 21st September, 2010). It is from this ASF that there are regional nodes (ECOWAS represents the West African flank). The AU is fully aware of this development--as is ECOWAS.
For both the ECOWAS and AU’s peace and security architecture, such a dent at their credibility is significant as it calls into question a far-from-coordinated approach to resolving crises on the continent – despite the regional and continental mechanisms that exist through the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework and the AU’s Peace and Security Council. Contrasted with the 2009 crisis in Madagascar, where SADC was given room to play its regional role with the AU offering more of an ancillary support, the narrative of this crisis is certainly a case of one step forward, two steps back in how the AU conducts diplomacy under the ambit of its putative peace and security architecture.
Even more significantly, what the Ivorian crisis has revealed is an absence of a continental framework—never mind regional – to address electoral crises. As AU member states move increasingly towards democratization, the one constant will be management of elections. Foreign and sub-regional observers are all well and good, but to avoid a repeat of the Kenyan and Zimbabwean models of governance, it behooves regional institutions, and the African Union, to certainly nip the migraine of future electoral headaches definitively in the bud.
In 2009, in his capacity as a “Do More Talk Less Ambassador” of the 42nd Generation—an NGO that promotes and discusses Pan-Africanism--Emmanuel gave a series of lectures on the role of ECOWAS and the AU in facilitating a Pan-African identity. Emmanuel owns "Critiquing Regionalism" (http://www.critiquing-regionalism.org). Established in 2004 as an initiative to respond to the dearth of knowledge on global regional integration initiatives worldwide, this non-profit blog features regional integration initiatives on MERCOSUR/EU/Africa/Asia and many others. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org / Mobile: 0268.687.653.